AN AMERICAN VIEW

The moral bankruptcy of America in the ’90s

What can explain the fury of a young man who smashes a woman’s car, thrashes her and then chases her until she goes overa bridge and dies?

FRED BRUNING September 11 1995
AN AMERICAN VIEW

The moral bankruptcy of America in the ’90s

What can explain the fury of a young man who smashes a woman’s car, thrashes her and then chases her until she goes overa bridge and dies?

FRED BRUNING September 11 1995

The moral bankruptcy of America in the ’90s

AN AMERICAN VIEW

FRED BRUNING

The mother is tormented by accounts of the incident—by thoughts of a man attacking her 33-year-old daughter on a bridge over the Detroit River, of the young woman plunging into treacherous waters, of the eager tide overtaking her, of the terror Deletha Word must have experienced as, unable to swim, she drew a final breath and lost hold on life. “I can just feel it,” said her mother, Dortha Word. “My baby was down there by herself. How could they be so cruel?”

What can explain the fury of the young man who allegedly attacked Deletha Word after a minor traffic accident early one August morning—who smashed her car window with a crowbar and then thrashed his victim and chased her until she went over the guard rail and dropped out of sight? What spurs such passion? A dented fender? A bruised ego? What?

But these are not the only mysteries haunting the dead woman’s mother. Dortha Word cannot understand why 40 people stood by as her daughter was brutalized, or, incredibly, why some cheered the attacker, or laughed at the spectacle. One brave latecomer tried unsuccessfully to reach Deletha Word in the river, but others did nothing— nothing but gather on the General MacArthur Bridge and watch as though the assault had been staged for their entertainment. “The ones who were standing there and looking, they were just as guilty,” said Dortha Word.

To New Yorkers, the story is grim but familiar. It summons a name from the past and a case that has become synonymous with the peculiar dislocations of modern life. It renews the debate over mutual obligations and limits of involvement. Once, the tragic fate of Catherine (Kitty) Genovese was supposed to illustrate the heartless, frozen attitudes of New York City residents. Now, the country

Fred Bruning is a writer with Newsday in New York.

What can explain the fury of a young man who smashes a woman’s car, thrashes her and then chases her until she goes overa bridge and dies?

has caught up. In private life and public affairs, Americans are withdrawing from one another. Detachment is the disease of the ’90s. When trouble starts, we’re on our own. New York is everywhere.

No doubt, isolation was the curse of Kitty Genovese. On March 13, 1964, Genovese, a 29-year-old waitress, was walking to her apartment in the borough of Queens when she was attacked by a stranger with a knife. Winston Moseley was his name and he drove the blade into Genovese again and again, but the poor woman did not go quietly. She screamed and begged for help, and her terrible noise must have gone through the quiet neighborhood like a freight train shrieking down the straightaway.

Authorities said 38 people witnessed at least part of the crime but failed to aid Kitty Genovese when she called out that she was being murdered. In their defence, local residents claim they tried notifying police and that one man shouted at the killer, prompting him to run away. But Moseley came back. He found Kitty Genovese stumbling around her apartment building and stabbed her again. Genovese died in the arms of a neighbor. (Moseley? He was sentenced to

the electric chair and, later, to life in prison. This summer, he complained about his original attorney and petitioned for a new trial. The courts will decide.)

Whatever else may be true about the case, Kitty Genovese was slaughtered while witnesses hesitated, and the impact of the episode is like a bruise still blushing purple three decades later. In a March speech, President Bill Clinton addressed the murder as if it happened yesterday and concluded: “No nation hiding behind closed doors is free. We’ve got to change the basic attitudes of this country, not only about crime and violence, but about how we think about ourselves and each other.”

And how do we think about ourselves and each other? If the news out of Washington is any indication, Americans are in a period of Vesuvian philosophical upheaval. The New Deal policies of Franklin Delano Roosevelt that dominated for a half century suggested a sense of community, of common caring, of government as guarantor, of co-operation and national purpose. But those concepts now seem antiquated as running boards on a presidential limo, innocent as an episode of Burns and Allen.

With conservatives in the ascendancy, government has been cast as a snarling public enemy. All for none is the battle cry. Let the consumer beware. Let the ill cure themselves. Let the poor find their way out of despair. Let the minorities stop whining. Let the welfare clients suffer in silence. Let the corporations do as they please. Let the regulators retreat. Let the wealthy enjoy the Hamptons. Under the Republican leadership of House Speaker Newt Gingrich and assorted like-minded pals, Congress has become the moral equivalent of a crowd on the General MacArthur Bridge—nothing but bullies and bystanders.

What sort of policies are in favor? Oh, there are proposals to stop the Environmental Protection Agency from safeguarding wetlands, from limiting the amount of sewage that can be dumped into waterways, from controlling toxic air pollution. There is another idea that seeks to prevent the agriculture department from using advanced scientific methods to gauge the purity of meat. Likewise, a Republican measure would ease the rigorous testing of prescription drugs. Now, the GOP’s rambunctious right wants to force public hospitals to report illegal aliens who seek treatment and stop their children from attending tax-supported schools.

The last initiative drew the scorn of New York’s conservative—but independent-minded—Republican mayor, Rudolph Giuliani. He said the anti-immigrant proposal was an exercise in ignorance and “based on an irrational fear of something different.” The measure, he said, would turn as many as 60,000 immigrant children out of city schools and into the streets, according to the mayor. But, listen, them’s the breaks. Better the youngsters find out early what life is all about. In 1995, it’s sink or swim, kids, and don’t even think about yelling for help.