In the small hours of March 13, 1964, Kitty Genovese ended her shift at the bar as usual, took her car, and parked a few  yards from the apartment complex where she lived, in Kew Gardens, Queens. As she started to walk toward her home she noticed a shadow behind her. Terrified, Genovese ran to Austin Street, closely followed by a man. Before she was able to take refuge in a building, the attacker stabbed her twice in the back. She screamed for help. Of the dozens of apartments in the area, only one of her neighbors opened his window and called out, “Leave that girl alone.” When he was sure that the lights had gone out, the criminal went after Genovese, who had dragged herself into a doorway. When he found her, the man in question, later identified as Winston Moseley, stabbed her again; then he raped her and left her to her fate.

According to the New York Times, the attack lasted more than half an hour, until finally someone called the police. Kitty Genovese died at 4:15 in the morning. At least thirty-eight people witnessed the incident without a single one of them deciding to call the police; if they had done so at the start of the attack, a squad car would have arrived within ten minutes.

Although later studies have called into question the details of this account, at the time it unleashed profound public anger, and led to two researchers, John Darley and Bibb Latané, conducting a famous psychological experiment, whose results they named “diffusion of responsibility syndrome” and “the bystander effect.” Their paradoxical conclusions demonstrated that the more people witness an emergency, the longer it takes for someone to intervene. In other words, the imitative tendency that is written in our genes causes us to put on the brakes whenever the time comes for us to take a different decision from those surrounding us.

Why should we be remembering Kitty Genovese today? Because it’s as though the whole of Mexico has in recent years been suffering from this “bystander effect.” Victims appear before us every day, every hour, on television and on the radio, in the press and on social networks. Ubiquitous, indisputable. However, because our mirror neurons don’t get emotionally involved with abstractions, we’ve learned to live with them, as though the dead were perfectly normal company every morning and every night, rather like the weather forecast or the national anthem that brings the broadcast to a close.

“There have been twelve executions today,” “seventy-two dead bodies have been discovered in a pit,” or “the number of violent deaths has reached 50,000,” we hear, tirelessly. Then the experts appear—or, worse still, the official spokesmen—to explain to us that, no, there haven’t been 50,000 dead, but 47,500, or 48,221, or 62,124. To which we’d have to add the 18,000 who have disappeared, according to the statistics coming from several NGOs. Figures and more figures, which we disregard, indifferent to their meaning. This is the shield we use to protect ourselves: with so many people involved, I’m not going to be the first to act.

It’s as though we 112,336,538 Mexicans were all contained within that apartment complex in Queens and, faced with the murder of 47,512 or 50,603 Genoveses, none of us has decided to take action. Some people will say that the situations are not equivalent, that a country is not a building, or, even more wretchedly, that most of the 48,270 or 53,400 dead—but who can know, when not even the figures are reliable?—belong to the side of the villains and as such their deaths shouldn’t matter so much to us.

Each time a smart-looking civil servant shows up on television, assuring us that it’s all the fault of the drugs gangs who are executing one another, it turns my stomach. It’s like a doctor saying to the relatives of a cancer patient, “Don’t worry, it’s only the malignant cells that are multiplying.” A good leader does not rend his garments when faced with the kind of terrible situation we’re in now—the 30,000 or 40,000 narcos who in theory are killing one another—but rather asks himself: “Why are they doing it?” And instead of washing his hands of it, he tries to prevent the illness. How? In the only way possible: with a social prophylaxis. With high-quality education. With culture. With employment opportunities.

If we admire heroes and abhor villains it’s because we find it very difficult to separate ourselves from everyone else: for good or ill, evolution has designed us to copy one another. But if we don’t want to feel shame when we look at ourselves, like the thirty-eight witnesses who didn’t help Genovese because they thought someone else would make the call, we have to demand, without respite, without pause, that the authorities take a close look at those numbers. Only a candidate capable of promising an exact, exhaustive list of those 48,234 or 65,967 dead should get our vote. Because it is only by transforming these figures into concrete lives and fates that our dim-witted brains will be able to understand something of the tragedy that surrounds us.

© Jorge Volpi. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2012 by Daniel Hahn. All rights reserved.

La madrugada del 13 de marzo de 1964, Kitty concluyó su turno en el bar como de costumbre, tomó su automóvil y lo estacionó a unos metros del conjunto donde vivía, en Kew Gardens. En cuanto inició el camino a casa, distinguió una sombra a sus espaldas. Atemorizada, Kitty corrió hacia la calle Austin, seguida de cerca por un hombre. Antes de que pudiera refugiarse en un edificio, el intruso le asestó dos cuchilladas por la espalda. "¡Auxilio!", gritó la joven. De entre las decenas de departamentos de la zona, sólo uno de los vecinos abrió la ventana y exclamó: "Dejen en paz a esa chica". Al constatar que las luces se apagaban, el maleante buscó a Kitty, quien se había arrastrado hasta un porche. Al descubrirla, el sujeto, identificado luego como Winston Moseley, volvió a acuchillarla; luego la violó y la abandonó a su suerte.

De acuerdo con el New York Times, el asalto se prolongó por más de media hora, hasta que por fin alguien llamó a la policía. Kitty Genovese murió a las 4:15 de la mañana. Al menos 38 personas observaron el incidente sin que ninguna se decidiese a llamar a la policía; de haberlo hecho al inicio del ataque, una patrulla habría tardado menos de 10 minutos en llegar.

Aunque estudios posteriores han puesto en duda la precisión de este relato, en su momento desató una profunda indignación pública y dio lugar a que dos investigadores, John Darley y Bibb Latané, condujesen un célebre experimento psicológico, el cual dio como resultado el llamado "síndrome de responsabilidad difusa" y el "efecto espectador". Sus paradójicas conclusiones indican que, entre más personas observan una emergencia, el tiempo que una de ellas tarda en intervenir se vuelve más largo. En otras palabras: la tendencia imitativa inscrita en nuestros genes nos frena a la hora de tomar una decisión distinta a la de quienes nos rodean.

¿Por qué recordar hoy a Kitty Genovese? Porque es como si todo México sufriera en estos años del "efecto espectador". Las víctimas comparecen frente a nosotros todos los días, a todas horas, en la televisión y en la radio, en la prensa y en las redes sociales. Ubicuas, inobjetables. Sin embargo, debido a que nuestras neuronas espejo no se involucran emocionalmente con abstracciones, nos hemos acostumbrado a convivir con ellas, como si los muertos fuesen una compañía natural cada mañana y cada noche, semejantes a las predicciones de los meteorólogos o al Himno Nacional que cierra las transmisiones.

Hoy ha habido 12 ejecuciones", "72 cadáveres han aparecido en una fosa" o "El número de muertes violentas ha llegado a 50,000", escuchamos sin descanso. A continuación aparecen los expertos -o, peor aún, los voceros oficiales- para indicarnos que no, que los muertos no son 50,000, sino 47,500, o 48,221, o 62,124. A los cuales habría que sumar los 18,000 desaparecidos, según el recuento de diversas ONG. Cifras y más cifras que pasamos por alto, indiferentes a lo que significan. Ése es nuestro escudo: habiendo tantas personas involucradas, no seré yo el primero en actuar.

Pareciera como si los 112,336,538 de mexicanos estuviésemos confinados en ese conjunto de apartamentos en Queens y, frente al asesinato de 47,512 o 50,603 Kitties, ninguno de nosotros se decidiese a actuar. Algunos dirán que las situaciones no son equivalentes, que un país no es un edificio o, de manera aún más miserable, que la mayor parte de los 48,270 o 53,400 muertos -¿pero quién puede saberlo, si las cifras ni siquiera son confiables?- pertenecen a los malvados y por tanto sus muertes no deberían importarnos tanto.

Cada vez que un atildado funcionario comparece en televisión, asegurando que toda la culpa es de cárteles que se ajustician entre sí, se me revuelve el estómago. Es como si un médico dijese a los familiares de un paciente con cáncer: no se preocupe, sólo se multiplican las células malignas. Un buen gobernante no se desgarra las vestiduras frente a la horrible situación presente -los 30,000 o 40,000 narcos que en teoría se matan entre sí-, sino que se pregunta: "¿Por qué lo hacen?" Y, en vez de lavarse las manos, intenta prevenir la enfermedad. ¿Cómo? De la única forma posible: con profilaxis social. Con educación de buen nivel. Con cultura. Con oportunidades de trabajo.

Si admiramos a los héroes y execramos a los villanos, es porque nos resulta terriblemente difícil separarnos de los demás: para bien o para mal, la evolución nos diseñó para copiarnos unos a otros. Pero si no queremos contemplarnos con vergüenza, como los 38 testigos que no auxiliaron a Kitty porque pensaron que alguien más haría la llamada, tenemos que exigir, sin tregua ni respiro, que las autoridades desmenucen esos números. Sólo el candidato que sea capaz de prometer un listado preciso y exhaustivo de esos 48,234 o 65,967 muertos debería tener nuestro voto. Porque sólo si transformamos las cifras en vidas y destinos concretos, nuestros torpes cerebros serán capaces de comprender un poco la tragedia que nos circunda.




Jorge VolpiJorge Volpi

Jorge Volpi is a doctor in law and a teacher of Mexican literature at the UNAM (Autonomous University of Mexico) and holds a PhD in Hispanic Philology from the University of Salamanca. The author of nine novels, including In Search of Klingsor, for which he won the Spanish Premio Biblioteca Breve prize and the French Deux-Océans-Grizane-Cavour Prize, Volpi is a founder of the "Crack" group, a Mexican literary movement that seeks to move beyond magical realism and mimics the ideals of the 1968 Latin American literary boom. He has received grants from the John S. Guggenheim Foundation and is presently a member of National System of Creators in Mexico.

Translated from SpanishSpanish by Daniel HahnDaniel Hahn

Daniel Hahn is a writer, editor, and translator. His translations include fiction by José Eduardo Agualusa and José Luís Peixoto, and nonfiction by writers ranging from Portuguese Nobel literature laureate José Saramago to Brazilian footballer Pelé.