Politically, Americans are more engaged than at any time in at least a generation. Voter turnout rates have been climbing for 15 years. The Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movements attest to Americans’ increasing unwillingness to sit on the political sidelines.
Direct civic participation is up. But on an personal level, we are becoming a nation of bystanders, less willing than ever to get involved in one another’s lives—even when horrific crimes are taking place.
Last week in Maryland, a jury convicted Brittany Norwood of first-degree murder in the gruesome killing of a co-worker at an upscale yoga clothing store in Bethesda, Md. Norwood attacked co-worker Jayna Murray one night last March. No motive was ever presented, but the murder happened after an argument over some merchandise at the store.
According to expert testimony, over the course of about 15 minutes, Norwood inflicted hundreds of wounds with a variety of weapons, including a hammer, knife, wrench, rope and metal peg—all as Murray screamed, moaned and begged for help.
In New York City last week, a woman was struck outside a Target store by a shopping cart thrown from a parking lot four stories above. The alleged assailants were two 12-year-old boys who, according to media reports, were telling jokes and laughing with each other after they were taken into custody. “They were just doing it for fun,” a police officer said of the alleged crime.
And in Philadelphia last week, a fourth defendant plead guilty to third-degree murder charges as part of the case against abortionist Kermit Gosnell. Gosnell ran a notorious abortion facility, where, according to a grand jury report, he “regularly and illegally delivered live, viable babies in the third trimester of pregnancy—and then murdered these newborns by severing their spinal cords with scissors.” Gosnell is also charged with the murders of two women under his care who died from botched abortions.
Gosnell and 10 employees are also charged with more than a dozen other crimes, including violations of the Controlled Substances Act, perjury, abuse of corpses, conspiracy, and corruption of minors.
All of these crimes are shocking in their own way. But what’s most striking is that in each case bystanders—and even those whose job it was to respond—had a chance to act but chose to do nothing.
Two employees of the Apple store next door to the yoga shop could clearly hear what was happening as Norwood savagely murdered Murray.
They later testified they heard screaming, grunting, thuds, high-pitched squealing and “hysterical noises” through the wall. The Apple manager even asked another employee to walk over to the wall to listen, just to be certain of what she was hearing.
The manager testified that she clearly heard someone cry, “Talk to me. Don’t do this.” At that point, the employee said, “There were some more sounds, kind of, screams, yelps, yells.” Then some time passed, and he heard, “Stop, stop, stop,” and “Oh God, stop. … God help me. Please help me.”
Surely someone at the Apple store could have called 911. Unfortunately, there is no app for courage or conscience. They did nothing. Neither did the Apple store security guard, who was listening to music on headphones.
In the Target store incident, the alleged assailants had been seen dropping objects onto customers before they moved on to heaving the shopping cart. According to media reports, an employee at the scene had earlier called Target about the boys throwing Slurpees onto customers, but was ignored. She said she was told by Target security officials that they did not handle anything outside of their door.
Health officials had known about the deplorable conditions in Gosnell’s abortion mill for years but did nothing. So had the National Abortion Federation, which rejected Gosnell’s application for membership but did not report him to authorities.
In fact, the abortion violations were discovered only when the FBI raided Gosnell’s family-practice business one floor above the abortion mill. Agents showed up to investigate Gosnell for his alleged illegal prescription-drug activity. Only then did they stumble upon his abortion “house of horrors,” which contained fetal remains in bottles and bags strewn throughout a facility soaked in blood, dust and animal feces.
I don’t mean to suggest that there aren’t many cases in which bystanders bravely intervene when a crime is occurring. But studies using data from the National Crime Victimization Survey find that most violent victimizations include the presence of bystanders who do nothing.
This shouldn’t surprise us. In a culture that instructs us to leave our religious and moral beliefs at the door, we cannot be shocked when people shed their consciences at the door too.
Before a person can stand up to evil, he must first acknowledge that it exists. But surveys of college students reveal how deeply our culture and institutions indoctrinate our children with moral relativism. Most grow up believing that tolerance and diversity, and individual choice and privacy, are our highest ideals.
Tolerance and diversity are valuable. But they are no substitute for authentic virtue. And they rarely inspire people to risk their well-being to help those in need.