On July 4, Kevin Joseph Sutherland, a 24-year old political activist, boarded a Washington DC Metro train en route to a holiday concert at RFK Stadium. Jasper Spires, an 18-year old college dropout, approached Sutherland and tried to grab his cellphone. During the three minute ride to the next station, Spires punched Sutherland until he fell to the floor, and then stabbed him 30 to 40 times. After a brief pause during which he robbed other passengers, Spires returned and stomped on Sutherland’s body. According to one witness, Spires “drop-kicked him in the head several times, like he wanted to kick his head off.”
When the car arrived at the station, Spires walked off. He dropped his camouflage pants and a bag containing his knife. He jumped a turnstile and left the station.
Hours later, Sutherland was pronounced dead at the scene.
This essay is not about Mr. Sutherland. It is about the ten passengers who watched Spires murder Sutherland, and did nothing. According to the police, while Sutherland cried out for help, the passengers remained “huddled at both ends of the car,” watching. Among them was a woman who said that the passengers told one another that it was too dangerous to get involved: “My instinct was to stay put and try to become as small as possible. I’m looking, but I don’t want to be noticed by him.”
The story of the ten passengers who watched the murder without intervening evokes memories of the murder of Kitty Genovese 50 years earlier.
In March 1964, the 28-year old Ms. Genovese, employed as a tavern manager, returned to her apartment in Kew Gardens, Queens, just after 3:00 am. Winston Moseley, a married father of two, trailed her to the parking lot next to her building and followed her when she got out of her car. As she ran to her building, he caught up and stabbed her in the back. She screamed: “Oh my God, he stabbed me! Help me!” Then he stabbed her three more times. A man from her apartment building yelled: “Leave that girl alone!” Moseley ran off, but returned shortly, and found Ms. Genovese in a foyer in the back of her building. He stabbed and slashed her repeatedly. As she lay dying, Moseley raped her and stole $49 from her pocketbook.
The New York Times reported: “For more than half an hour 38 respectable, law-abiding citizens in Queens watched a killer stab a woman in three separate attacks in Kew Gardens.” Later investigations established that the Times account exaggerated the situation. Rather than 38 witnesses, the real number was about a dozen, and rather than three attacks, there were two.
Setting aside the obvious differences in circumstances, Kevin Sutherland’s murder parallels the Genovese case. About a dozen Kew Gardens residents watched and failed to intervene as Moseley assaulted and stabbed Ms. Genovese to death. About ten Metro passengers watched and failed to intervene as Spiers assaulted and stabbed Sutherland to death. A Kew Garden resident later explained: “I didn’t want to get involved.” A Metro passenger, recounting his experience on Reddit, explained: “What I don’t wish is that I had somehow tried to attack the assailant. I am a little bit larger than he was, but I would not have won.”
Both victims were gay, although sexual orientation does not appear to have been a factor in their murders.
In both cases, the only assistance offered by witnesses was rendered after the fact. The self-described “larger” passenger who chose not to challenge the assailant, held Sutherland after his murderer left, stroking his head and speaking soothingly to him, until he died. After Kitty Genovese’s murderer fled, a neighbor named Sophia Farrar held her until she died.
But while parallels might exist, the two incidents could not have been more different in the publicity they generated. According to a recent retrospective in the New York Times about the Genovese murder:
Seldom has a crime in New York City galvanized public outrage so intensely. Newspapers spread the story across the nation and as far away as Istanbul and Moscow. Clergymen and politicians decried the events, while psychologists scrambled to comprehend them.
At a time when the world seemed to be unraveling — Kennedy had been assassinated four months earlier, Harlem was on the verge of race riots, crime rates were suddenly taking off — the case quickly expanded into an all-consuming metaphor for the ills of contemporary urban life. A psychiatrist speculated that television had rendered the witnesses inactive by making them almost delusional. Other observers cited a general moral collapse of modern society.
The Genovese murder was the subject of several books, plays, and musical compositions. An episode of the Perry Mason television show was based on it. It even figured in the comic series Watchmen: the mask used by the vigilante Rorschach was made of material from a dress originally intended for Kitty Genovese.
In stark contrast, the Sutherland murder, and the inaction of the passengers, have attracted little attention outside of Washington DC, where the murder occurred, or Connecticut, Sutherland’s home state. Fifty years after the Kitty Genovese murder roused national and international outrage, why has the Kevin Sutherland murder caused barely a ripple?
Much has changed over the past half century, but perhaps nothing has changed more than our conceptions of safety and aggression. To intellectual and cultural leaders of the 1960s, safety meant security in one’s person and in one’s home. It meant physical security against acts of physical aggression. The Genovese murder was a body-blow to the public conception of safety because it challenged the notion that we could depend upon our neighbors to help keep us safe from aggression.
To intellectual and cultural leaders of today, safety and aggression have taken on strange new meanings. Like devalued currency, they have been inflated to the point of worthlessness.
The controversy caused by a recent debate at Brown University on whether or not a “rape culture” exists illustrates the new meanings. The school’s “Sexual Assault Task Force” decided that students needed a “safe space” in case they found the ideas expressed in the debate upsetting. So they set up a room in which students could “recuperate” from any disturbing viewpoints they might encounter:
The room was equipped with cookies, coloring books, bubbles, Play-Doh, calming music, pillows, blankets and a video of frolicking puppies, as well as students and staff members trained to deal with trauma. Emma Hall, a junior, rape survivor and “sexual assault peer educator” who helped set up the room and worked in it during the debate, estimates that a couple of dozen people used it. At one point she went to the lecture hall — it was packed — but after a while, she had to return to the safe space. “I was feeling bombarded by a lot of viewpoints that really go against my dearly and closely held beliefs,” Ms. Hall said.
“Safe spaces” are becoming increasingly available at academic centers. They are based on the notion that adults are endangered by disagreeable ideas, and need physical protection from them.
The same devaluation of concepts has led to the proliferation of “microaggression” codes. These are lists of terms and phrases which purportedly “communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership.” At the same time that Jasper Spires was stabbing Kevin Sutherland 30 to 40 times, American universities were hard at work protecting their students from microaggression. The University of California was promulgating a microaggression list which included such inflammatory statements as: “America is a melting pot.” “I believe the most qualified person should get the job.” “Affirmative action is racist.” “America is the land of opportunity.” The University was instructing its teachers, students, and administrators that the use of such phrases is racist, hostile, and aggressive.
A culture that treats unfashionable ideas as acts of aggression does not understand aggression. A culture that infantilizes young adults by providing safe rooms, equipped with cookies, coloring books, and videos of frolicking puppies to help them recuperate from exposure to different viewpoints, does not understand safety.
When a real act of aggression occurs, when a genuine breach of safety happens, such a culture is mute and paralyzed. Not just the passengers on the Metro train, but the journalists, commentators, and intellectuals who set the tone of public discourse. All are quite literally at a loss for words, because they have wasted and misapplied words like “aggression” and “safety” on other, spurious things, so that the words have lost their meaning.
That may explain, at least in part, the different responses to the Genovese and Sutherland murders. If a culture no longer understands such fundamental concepts as aggression and safety, it is in no position to judge, let alone condemn, people like the passengers who watched in silent terror as Spires murdered Sutherland. Those passengers were like helpless Eloi confronting Morlocks in H.G. Wells’s Time Machine. Their culture had rendered them incapable of comprehending the Dark Night unfolding before their eyes.
Of course, the thing about a culture is that, for good or ill, it pervades every level of society, from the subterranean subway lines to the highest pinnacles of power. While Spires was murdering Sutherland, and while academics were murdering language, the administration was completing negotiations with the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism. The White House was assuring the nation that allowing Iran to maintain its nuclear program, and handing over $150 billion in sanctions, was somehow conducive to peace. While they were doing so, millions marched through the streets of Teheran shouting “Death to America” and burning our flag. Even as the agreement was being readied for signature, Brigadier General Ahmad Reza Pourdastan, the commander of the Iranian ground forces, declared that a rapprochement with the United States was out of the question.
Our policy toward Iran’s nuclear ambitions was summed up by the passenger of Mr. Sutherland’s train: We will stay put and become as small as possible and hope to remain unnoticed. There are Eloi in many places, and Morlocks infest the Dark Night.