Editorial: Exercising Social Responsibility By BECKY O'MALLEY

Friday February 24, 2006

Daily Planet reporter Judith Scherr received a literate and thoughtful letter this week from a Contra Costa Avenue resident about the stabbing which occurred recently at a teen party on that street. The writer said that “I would like to offer a question that is worth some commentary. The question is—did the neighbors in the homes adjacent to the party exercise any social responsibility in contacting the Berkeley Police Department prior to the party getting out of hand and in offering assistance immediately after the stabbing?” 

It’s a good question, but the answer is not as easy as it looks. The Planet has not been able to obtain police call logs for the time period immediately preceding the stabbing, but our reporter believes, based on conversations with officers, that no calls were made earlier. This might mean that neighbors were reluctant to call, but it might also mean that the party wasn’t noisy, and the houses are not close together, so they weren’t aware of the problem. Some witnesses report that there was foot and automobile traffic, but that could also be the case for a harmless, well-supervised party. 

The letter writer has a theory: “In my own view, this lack of a sense of neighborly responsibility and involvement is a sad reflection on the deteriorating fabric of our urban society. Due to the time demands of work and family, and the frequent changes of residence based on employment changes, we have lost a sense of neighborhood and feel unconnected to those around us.” But 40 years ago, the stabbing murder of Kitty Genovese in Queens provoked a similar outcry, sparked by a newspaper story claiming that there were many witnesses to the attack who did nothing.  

The New York Times lead: “For more than half an hour 38 respectable, law-abiding citizens in Queens watched a killer stalk and stab a woman in three separate attacks in Kew Gardens.” A number of subsequent reports said that the original Times story contained many factual errors. It now seems to most commentators that the 38 citizens didn’t actually know what was happening, and that the police were called as soon as someone realized that the attack was in progress. Nonetheless, the incident gave rise to a new theory of social alienation called the Genovese syndrome. 

Alienation is a common theme in discussions of modern life, going back at least as far as Marx. But it’s hard to believe that just as many unobserved crimes did not take place in pre-modern pre-urban society, or that they are not now taking place in rural society as well as urban society. Matthew Shepard was murdered on the outskirts of Laramie, Wyoming, population 27,000. And any reader of Thomas Hardy knows that rural societies where too much is known about everyone can be oppressive in different ways. 

This kind of crime has, thank goodness, been rare or almost non-existent in the Berkeley hills, which in many ways are more like suburbs than like the East Bay flatlands, where similar incidents among hot-blooded teenagers are all too frequent. A Berkeley young man, liked by his friends and beloved of his family, was shot to death in the flats just last weekend. But even in the well-heeled suburbs (Orinda, Lafayette, in recent memory) murders take place, usually without neighbors knowing about them.  

Our correspondent’s letter raises one more important question about connectedness in society. He or she ends with this paragraph: 

“Because I live on Contra Costa Avenue (but a good distance from the party house), I would rather not identify myself. I will say that I was aware of a lot of teenage foot traffic that evening, and that a party was occurring somewhere on the street. In that sense, I do not hold myself entirely blameless.” And the signature is “A Contra Costa Avenue Resident.” 

The letter was addressed to Scherr, not submitted to the opinion section for publication. If it had been, it would not have been published, because we have a firm policy against publishing anything for which the author is not willing to take responsibility. In rare cases, we agree to withhold from print names of people who face credible threats of serious retaliation, but even then we insist on knowing the name. That’s why this comment is based only on excerpts, though the letter was well-written and deserves publication in toto. 

Anonymous complaints can also be destructive to the social fabric—just ask anyone who has been harassed by the nameless neighborhood busybody who calls the police or the health department at the drop of a hat. Part of social responsibility is having the courage to attach your own name to your opinions. This particular letter writer was not reluctant to mention the names of some physicians living nearby who perhaps did not offer assistance to the stabbing victims. That’s unfair—they might not even have been home at the time. “Consider the source,” as my grandmother used to say, is always a good practice when evaluating criticisms of any kind.