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Death Count

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.