“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to
me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping’”(qtd. in “The History
of Mister Rogers' Powerful Message”). Mr. Fred Rogers reflected on advice his mother had once
given him; however, this advice contains a few absolutes and may not ring true in today’s
society. A question is raised, scrutinizing the accountability of civilians and whether or not their
civic duty is to help. This is an ethical dilemma everyone could potentially face. When
witnessing a crime or act of bullying, just how responsible is a bystander to act? We don’t have
to put ourselves at danger necessarily, but calling the police or just saying, “Stop that!” could go
a long way.
The choice to act or not to act when crisis strikes lies within a person’s psyche. This
dilemma is a widely known trend called the bystander effect. As authors and psychological
researchers Jason Marsh and Dacher Keltner describe in their article “We Are All Bystanders,”
“When study participants thought there were other witnesses to the emergency, they felt less
personal responsibility to intervene.” The article featured in Changing Minds, an online center
focused on educating people on every side of controversial topics, called “The Bystander Effect”
describes the occurrence as, “[witnesses] assume nothing is wrong because nobody else looks
concerned.” Both of these definitions sound very similar to excuses as to why people don’t take
actions. Onlookers simply stand by when they receive social cues that the norm is to mind one’s
own business. The thought process seems to be, “If I can’t fight off a thief stealing a woman’s
purse, then I shouldn’t do anything,” However, that is simply not the case because, “indifference
is... as forcefully muscular--as any blow,” meaning turning the other cheek is negligent (“A
Teacher’s Guide to the Holocaust”). Though the explanation behind the bystander effect is
simplistic, the resulting quandary is much more convoluted.
The bystander effect is one tale as old as time; however, after the grim fate of
Kitty Genovese, this subtle effect was forced into the limelight. Kitty Genovese was a twenty-
eight-year-old girl who resided in the Queens of New York City until one dreadful night in 1964
when Winston Moseley brutally stabbed Genovese to death over the course of thirty minutes.
Thirty-eight civilians witnessed the assail yet continued on with their nights ("Bystander Effect
and Diffusion of Responsibility"). The seemingly callous onlookers appalled the nation. Evan
Osnos, a Pulitzer Prize winning investigative journalist, captured that same shock in an article he
wrote for The New Yorker where he logged "...the 1964 case of Kitty Genovese, whose murder
in a crowded stretch of Kew Gardens became known as a metaphor for moral decay, when
nobody stepped into help her." Whatever happened to love thy neighbor...