The lessons of Kitty Genovese

Morton C. Bernstein

November 06, 1992|By Morton C. Bernstein

MORE than 25 years ago, America learned with shock that while an assailant stalked and repeatedly stabbed Kitty Genovese, her neighbors watched from their darkened rooms. Despite her shrieks for help, no one came to her aid over a period of half an hour. Several later explained that they "didn't want to get involved." We shook our heads in disbelief at such callousness.

If feelings of sympathy and humanity do not move us to act to enforce the rule of law, our self-interest should. If we do not help our neighbors when they are lawlessly attacked, we diminish our own safety.

That was the lesson of Hitler. When his hordes lawlessly marched into Czechoslovakia and the democratic world cringed, not only abandoned the Czechs and Slovaks, we diminished our own safety, as the horrors of World War II attest.

Clearly we have not learned the lessons of either Hitler the lawless attacker or of Kitty Genovese the innocent victim. Every headline, every television news clip that shows Serb mortars fired indiscriminately into Sarajevo, that shows a mourning grandmother wounded in a cemetery while burying two grandchildren, that reports a Serbian general ordering attacks on all residential areas evokes no more action than the head-wagging produced by Kitty Genovese's murder.

Some formalists say the United States and other nations lack the legal authority to intervene in another sovereign state, to do more than seek to deliver humanitarian aid. Some generals tell us they do not know how to use military force to end the genocide.

The legalists forget the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals. The trials established the proposition that officials who order and carry out "crimes against humanity" are subject to criminal penalties. Sovereignty is not a legitimate defense.

The United States should lead the United Nations to declare that those who order and carry out genocidal acts, who attack unarmed civilians and who imprison people not reasonably accused of criminal acts shall be held accountable under the Nuremberg principles. We must put them on notice that we shall use our marvels of technology, our means of air and electronic surveillance and other means to identify those who commit such acts. They must be told that once they set foot in any other nation of the world, they shall be arrested and tried; that no statute of limitations will protect them.

Why else did we conduct the Nuremberg trials? Vengeance was not reason enough.

We must put the Serbs on notice -- and the perpetrators of like atrocities if carried out by Bosnians and Croats -- that just as surely as the world condemned Saddam Hussein for forcibly crossing a national border, we condemn and hold any individual accountable for crossing the equally sacred border of people's right not to be persecuted for their religion or ethnic heritage.

When Kitty Genovese's neighbors cowered in their darkened rooms without lending her assistance, they not only failed her, they endangered themselves. We do the same by permitting "ethnic cleansing" to go unchallenged.

If the generals cannot figure out how to do the job, our new president and our allies should get another set of generals.

Morton C. Bernstein is a professor of law at Washington University in St. Louis.

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