Maybe you saw the reports of a neighborhood’s response to an avalanche last Friday:
Rescue officials say about 100 neighbors converged to help find three people buried Friday when an avalanche swept down a mountain in a residential area of Missoula in western Montana and crushed a house at the bottom.
“It was very chaotic but a lot of energy,” said Jeff Brandt, assistant chief of operations for the Missoula Fire Department.
Scores of neighbors had already started the rescue effort when he arrived about half an hour after the slide, and some 20 professional responders helped provide focus to the effort, Brandt said. An 8-year-old boy was pulled from the snow just as he arrived, he said.
The three people remained hospitalized Saturday, a day after the avalanche slid down 4,768-foot Mount Jumbo into the northeast Missoula neighborhood… MORE
In crisis situations, we see this again and again. We saw it on 911. We saw it at the Boston Marathon. In a few weeks we will see the annual festival of neighborliness called the Red River Flood.
But it is interesting to me that among urban public safety personnel a positive neighborhood response tends not to be expected. In a few situations I have even heard police, firefighters or emergency management tell “civilians” not to get involved and let the professionals take charge. Over a beer in Baltimore, Chicago, or Philadelphia many (not all) pledged to protect and serve the public consider that same public their greatest threat.
On March 13, 1964 Kitty Genovese was killed in a middle-class neighborhood of Queens. Her story became a modern parable of corrupt priests, fearful pharisees, and bad Samaritans.
According to the New York Times and the story told and re-told, scores of neighbors did nothing even as they heard her screams for help. Maybe you can depend on your neighbors in Missoula, but not in the big cities became a common understanding. Since then we have looked for and found corroboration. Expect the worse and you will not be disappointed.
There are tw0 new books out on the Genovese story. A debate is renewed over what happened — even more what did not happen — a half-century ago. In the current New Yorker Nicholas Lemann reviews the books, sympathizes with the argument that urban apathy was amplified far beyond reality, and concludes, “The real Kitty Genovese syndrome has to do with our susceptibility to narratives that echo our preconceptions and anxieties.”
Meanwhile in the Daily News, Catherine Pelonero, author of the one of the new books, defends much of the urban myth. (“In speaking of myths and mythologies we do not make claims regarding empirical truth,” a favorite professor explained, “but instead point to the power of popular perception.”) Yet even she writes, “The witnesses weren’t chronically hard-hearted New Yorkers who couldn’t bother intervening while a neighbor was murdered. They were normal people hobbled by a mix of fear, self-interest, and apathy. We all fail at times, and how bravely we behave varies from day to day, moment to moment.”
I spend a good deal of my time and energy working with people who expect the worst and that may well include human nature. Given this expectation they plan, act, and at times decide not to act in anticipation of viciously self-interested behavior. I am aware evidence for this predisposition exists. It is not, however, the only or always predominant evidence.
Emerging directly from the Genovese case is the empirically demonstrated “Bystander Effect“. We are, it would seem, more heroic when there are fewer folks about. The larger a crowd, the more we tend to defer to the heroism of others.
But — or especially — in a crowd, when one steps forward to help, s/he will often be followed. A significant element in social resilience is facilitating individual initiative to help.
Dorothy Day was about nine years old when she lived through the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire. Years later she recalled:
What I remember most plainly about the earthquake was the human warmth and kindliness of everyone afterward. For days refugees poured out of burning San Francisco and camped in Idora Park and the race track in Oakland. People came in their night clothes; there were new-born babies. Mother and all our neighbors were busy from morning to night cooking hot meals. They gave away every garment they possessed. They stripped themselves to the bone in giving, forgetful of the morrow. While the crisis lasted, people loved each other.
It shows a susceptibility to narratives that echo my preconceptions and aspirations, but it seems to me part of being involved in homeland security, a large part of any presumed leadership role, and a significant part of being fully human is to do our best to love each other.
But I am embarrassed to speak in such terms. Is my embarrassment part of the homeland security problem or is it just that love is as tough to define as homeland security?