Monday, April 26, 2010

Death in NYC: Can Empathy and Condemnation Go Hand in Hand?

Several years ago, a teacher in my school district, at a different school, was disciplined for using duct tape to fasten a student to a chair.  The day after this hit the newspaper, the staff room was abuzz with teachers saying, "What was she thinking?"  "I can't imagine what she was thinking." "Does anyone know what she was thinking?"  There was a lull in the conversation, and one of the most senior teachers said, "Let's be honest.  Is there anyone who actually doesn't know what she was thinking?"

I am reminded of this episode today because an item has hit the news regarding a homeless man who was killed in New York City a week ago.  Hugo Alfredo Tale-Yax, 31, was stabbed as he intervened in an early morning altercation between a man and a woman on a Queens sidewalk-- some reports say it was a mugging.  In a scene captured by a surveillance camera, Tale-Yax then walked down the sidewalk, collapsed, and  lay there for about an hour as numerous pedestrians walked by.  One took a picture of him.  Another shook him and lifted him up far enough to see a pool of blood.  By the time authorities arrived, he was dead.

What were those passersby thinking?  You may find yourself reminded of the storied case of Kitty Genovese, the woman who was stabbed to death in 1964 outside a Queens apartment building.  Her death became symbolic of people's uncaring attitude towards others, after it was reported that the killer returned for three separate assaults, 38 people had witnessed the attack, and no one had called the police. Forty-five years from now will be we be talking about the Tale-Yax case in the same way we talk about Kitty Genovese?

It turns out, however, that the Genovese case wasn't all that simple.  In their recent book SuperFreakonomics, Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner argue that the attack on Kitty Genovese was not witnessed by as many people as reported, not as obviously a murder in progress as reported, and in fact at least one person did call the police.  There were two attacks, not three, and they were in two different locations.  Several people did yell out their windows to the killer to leave her alone, and, when they did, he appeared to leave and she appeared to get up.  They thought it was over.  Is it possible that the Tale-Yax case also has some shades of gray?

I think we can all agree that, in an ideal world, anyone who knew he was injured should have tried to help him and/or called 911.  So, why didn't they?  Did Mr. Tale-Yax have the misfortune to be injured in the one place in America where everyone doesn't agree on this?  Probably not.

When we say that people should have called, we are doing so with much better information than people had at the time.  We know now that Mr. Tale-Yax was dying, and that failure to call an ambulance probably cost him his life.  The people walking by, on the other hand, were not met with that certainty.  They had to weigh out the probability that this man needed help against the chances that he didn't, and also the chances that if they tried to help him they would wind up regretting it.

At least some of the pedestrians presumed that Mr. Tale-Yax was asleep.  The sight of a homeless man sleeping -- or passed out -- on the sidewalk in Queens is not that unusual.  It is certainly far more common than someone bleeding to death on a sidewalk in Queens.  These people weighed the probabilities and went with the one that was far more likely.

Other passersby, though, clearly knew he was hurt.  The person who shook him and picked him up certainly did.  The person who took his picture appears to talk with a companion about the situation before they leave.  We all assume that we, in the same situation, would have called 911.  Why didn't they?

First of all, somebody did.  There were a total of three 911 calls.  The first, which appears to have come during the initial altercation, reported a woman screaming but gave the wrong address.  The second reported a man lying in the street and also gave the wrong address.  The third brought emergency personnel, who found Mr. Tale-Yax dead.

Let's just say, however, for the sake of argument, that there was at least one person who walked by, saw Tale-Yax, realized he was injured, and didn't call.  Should they be condemned for it?  Or can we muster some empathy for them?  I think the answer may be both. 

Someone failed to help a dying person.  That can't be OK in our society.  At the same time, I can imagine 100 reasons why they didn't, from being a wanted criminal or an undocumented immigrant themselves, to simply failing to grasp what they were seeing, to convincing themselves that if he was really hurt someone would have already called.  Think about it -- have you ever seen a car on the side of the road and not called for help?  You probably have -- I know I have -- because you figured someone else had already called.

Empathizing with the passersby does not require condoning what they did.  Understanding and accepting are not the same thing.  We know that the people who walked by Hugo Alfredo Tale-Yax should have helped him.  Chances are, they know it too. And really, if we think about it, is there anyone who doesn't know what they were thinking?


Sally Wright Day said...

Wow, is this important on so many levels, maybe the least of which is to increase the empathy for all those who didn't respond and spurring the rest of us not to judge. On another level are the newer facts/speculation about people who did respond to Kitty Genovese's tragedy--and this one, too. I didn't know that. Thank you, Naomi.

These two situations highlight one of the biggest downsides of instant news. It goes around the world with just the basic facts--as it should--but we judge it too quickly. When more facts surface, we've already added so much weight in judgment that knowing the truth of a situation is nearly impossible--like trying to add more water to an already saturated sponge.

Now that we have fewer news outlets and fewer trained news gatherers--and, honestly, fewer readers and listeners who are good consumers of the news--it's incumbent on those of us who may be witnesses to tell what we've seen to respected news outlets.

Colleen said...

When I heard about that original murder, in college, we also learned about the studies that they did afterwards, when they learned when people would, and would not, attempt to find help. I swore then and there that I would not be like the 'average' person.

If I see a car broken down (or whatever), unless it's within an obvious short walk to a gas station or convenience store, I call 911. Every time. And if my kids are in the car, they get a talk on why.

I'd much rather call when it's not necessary than feel guilty later. I have been told my 911 people that they know about it, and have them thank me for calling *too*. They'd clearly rather have duplicate calls, too, than not get one that they need!

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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
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