I believe it is Dateline NBC that sets up situations with women being publicly abused by men, or children by adults, and films the reactions of onlookers. In each case, someone always intervenes but not until after a sad number of people have walked by, gawked, and done nothing. Last night, we watched a movie named An American Crime on one of the cable movie channels. Based on what is still referred to as the “most horrific crime in the history of the state of Indiana”, the film concerns the case of Sylvia Likens, a 16-year-old girl who was tortured and murdered in the home of Gertrude Baniszewski by other kids her age, and many far younger. The Baniszewski house was not unknown, they didn’t “keep to themselves”, they were a middle-class family of a single mother and her four children in a busy, 1965 neighborhood of Indianapolis. In the film, when Gertrude forces Sylvia to insert a glass bottle into herself, vaginally, Sylvia’s screams can be heard outside. A neighbor woman tends to her lawn, a neighbor man, calmly and matter-of-factly, tells her it’s “Best to stay out of it, I think.”
Best to stay out of it, I think
Recent history is riddled with stories of crimes that are ignored by onlookers, many times even watched as if a fee should have been paid to attend. Here in Seattle, a 15-year-old girl was pushed into the bus/train lane of our Metro bus tunnel and kicked and punched in full view of waiting passengers and security guards who stood and did nothing.
Are we a society of voyeurs who wish to watch the lives of others from a distance without dirtying our own hands? Back in 1965, it could be that there was more of a common impulse to just keep to oneself, particularly if it involved the matter of another family. With our instant ability to see into so many lives life via YouTube, have we changed? Do our online lives make us more likely to watch, and judge, from afar? It is, perhaps, a gray area as to when we should get involved in the matter of another person’s family. Far be it from us to tell someone how to raise their children, or live their lives, right? There are extreme cases; when they beat and burned Sylvia, Gertrude Baniszewski’s children truly believed that they were only helping their mother “punish” her for lying, stealing, and gossiping.
How much does human nature affect our desire to “just stay out of it”? Has the internet changed things?
If you hear me scream, will you help me?