Don’t suffer from Bystander Syndrome

Last week we looked at the familiar parable of the Good Samaritan from Luke 10. While this story is probably not a new one for any of us, I believe the events that Jesus included have spawned a phrase that we still use today for those who witness an opportunity to do the right thing – but don’t engage: The Bystander Syndrome.
Perhaps no news story in our recent history depicts this “Bystander Syndrome” more horrifically than the case of Kitty Genovese; a young bar manager living in New York in 1964. On March 13, after her late night shift, Kitty Genovese left work at 2:30 AM and arrived at her apartment in Queens around 3:15 AM. She parked her car in the lot, only 100 feet from the doorway to enter her building, and got out, only to be immediately followed by a man armed with a large hunting knife.
Genovese ran towards her door, but the man overtook her and stabbed her twice in the back. Screaming for help, several lights came on in her apartment building, and one man yelled out his window, “Leave that girl alone!”. The lights and shouting scared away her attacker, but Kitty Genovese was seriously injured and could only crawl towards the safety of the door. She was unable to take out her key and gain access – and no one from inside came to her rescue.
10 minutes later, her attacker returned, this time wearing a wide brim hat to hide his face. Finding Genovese still outside, he stabbed her repeatedly and then raped her. After this brutal attack, a 70-year-old woman finally came outside and found a bleeding and dying Kitty Genovese lying in the hallway.
Finally, an ambulance was called, but after it arrived to pick up the young woman, Kitty Genovese died in route to the hospital. Later, when law enforcement and news reporters arrived on the scene, it was discovered that the police had been called two separate times during the attack, but both times they responded and didn’t engage because they believed there was “only a domestic dispute” taking place at the scene.
Canvassing the apartments, the news media initially reported that 37 or 38 different people in the building had been witness to the attack, but save the one man who yelled and the one woman who eventually went out and found the dying woman – no one did anything.
Subsequent reports surfaced that indicated the initial statements were inaccurate, and truly only 11 or 12 people had witnessed the attack and not responded. Whether it was truly 37 or 38 people, or merely 11 or 12, the question still exists: Why wouldn’t anyone engage? Why didn’t these witnesses do the right thing and help Kitty Genovese? Why did these people experience “Bystander Syndrome”?
I don’t know for certain why the Priest and the Levite passed by the half dead man on the Jericho Road. I don’t know why one dozen or a few dozen people passed by the opportunity to help Kitty Genovese. I simply pray that, as a church – each one of us will pray and be on the lookout for chances to engage; to do the right thing – and we will be the Good Samaritan instead of a bystander.

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