On Sept. 17, the life of a 16-year-old high schooler in Long Island ended tragically in a violent brawl outside a strip mall. Khaseen Morris was told to show up outside the mall at a certain time by several others his age, after he was seen walking home the girlfriend of another boy. Morris showed up and was immediately attacked by a group of five teenagers. A senseless brawl erupted and Morris was stabbed repeatedly in the chest, dying later that night in the hospital.
The tragedy of Morris’s murder extends beyond the senselessness of his violent death and the fact that an innocent young life ended so abruptly over a trivial adolescent dispute. The horrific nature of Morris’s murder is amplified by the fact that the brawl occurred in broad daylight and was filmed by a group of 50 teenagers, so that Morris’s stabbing was caught on dozens of phone cameras. No one intervened to assist the 16-year-old, even though he was outnumbered by a group of boys larger and older than him. Thus, Khaseen Morris’s murder occurred in a stunning, shocking absence of humanity. In his last desperate moments of utter helplessness, no one came to his side.
It is deeply disturbing that the impulse to document Morris’s death far outweighed any instinct to help him. What does Morris’s brutal murder, and the fact that no one intervened to help him, say about society in 2019? Perhaps the very devices that are artifacts of technological human progress have desensitized us to violence and given us an insatiable appetite for entertainment. Perhaps our constant craving for spectacle — to both document and witness it — has diminished our humanity and reduced the value of our fellow beings to their entertainment value.
But the shocking neglect of each of those 50 teenagers to intervene in the brawl and save Morris’s life might be explained by something other than the moral breakdown of our technologically advanced society. The story of Kitty Genovese’s brutal murder in 1964 may suggest that a certain enduring and disturbing feature of collective human behavior played a key role in Morris’s senseless death. On March 13, 1964, Catherine “Kitty” Genovese was murdered outside her apartment at three in the morning, when she was stabbed to death after walking home from a late shift at a local bar. 38 people had either seen or heard the attack on Genovese, but not one of the witnesses intervened to help. By the time someone called the police, it was too late to save the young woman’s life.
Kitty Genovese’s murder prompted a major psychological study in the 1960s, led by psychologists Bibb Latane and John Darle. As a result of their research, Darley and Latane concluded that the greater the number of bystanders witnessing an emergency, the smaller the chance that anyone will intervene. This “diffusion of responsibility” among large groups of witnesses that decreases the likelihood of intervention is known as the bystander effect. Ironically, the presence of many witnesses serves to diminish the sense of responsibility felt by each individual witness.
The circumstances of these two murders were, of course, entirely different, especially since they were sixty years apart. Kitty Genovese was targeted and victimized because she was a woman walking home alone in the early hours of the morning. Khaseen Morris was a 16-year-old boy whose life ended in a senseless brawl fueled by nothing more than high school drama. Nevertheless, what connects these two murders is the fact that they were enabled by large groups of witnesses who failed to intervene — in other words, by the bystander effect.
Even though these two tragic murders occurred in vastly different circumstances and were sixty years apart, the bystander effect still took hold. Thus, the bystander effect is a disturbing feature of collective human behavior that continues to endure. To acknowledge the bystander effect’s role in Morris’s murder is not to dismiss the responsibility that each of those witnesses had to intervene. Rather than absolving the guilt and complicity of witnesses who fail to intervene in a crime, the bystander effect allows us to make sense of that complicity. We musn’t dehumanize the witnesses to these murders because they failed to intervene. We all have the capacity and responsibility to help human beings in need, but our innate human nature can make it hard to fulfill that responsibility. By first acknowledging the psychological barriers that will work to prevent us from doing the right thing in times of crisis and emergency — which, unfortunately, we will all face at some point in our lives — we do not absolve ourselves of the responsibility to help. Instead, we identify the obstacles that we must inevitably overcome when someone else’s life is in our hands.