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Author of this essay:

Ven. Ming Zhen Shakya
(November 21, 2010)

Kitty Genovese And Death On Everest

"There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea."

-- T.S. Eliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

Sometimes there is no time for indecision. We must decide and whatever our decision is, it is final. Our position, regardless of whether we state it boldly or keep it in a spineless silence, is as permanent as words on a gravestone.

There are occasions in which we find a person in distress. Perhaps he has been the victim of a crime or an illness or injury. We may not be able to tell immediately how serious his condition is, but we can reasonably surmise that he needs help. How do we respond?

Buddhism gives us little latitude. We go to the person and help or do whatever is necessary to obtain the kind of help that is required. This is the ethical decision. We illustrate it with an old Zen story. A holy man is sitting on a river bank when a scorpion comes to the edge of the bank and falls into the water. The holy man sees it struggling, and he reaches down, scoops it up, and puts it on dry land. As he does so, the scorpion stings him. A short time later the scorpion returns to the edge and again falls into the water, and again the holy man scoops it up and puts it onto dry land; and again the scorpion stings him. A third time the scorpion returns and falls into the river and again the holy man scoops it up and is stung as he puts it on dry land. A man happens to be watching all this and is annoyed by the holy man's incomprehensible actions. "Why do you persist in helping this wretched scorpion when all it does is sting you for your trouble?" And the holy man replies simply, "It is the nature of a scorpion to sting, just as it is the nature of a human being to help a creature in need."

This teaching adds a further dimension. Even if we know in advance that we will be inconvenienced by the decision to help, we still help. We can rightfully put a limit on the injury we could experience. It was not a black mamba that kept falling into the water.

If we decide not to help and we are later criticized or publicly chastised for taking the unethical course, we can claim that we wanted to do the "right thing" but that intervening forces prevented us from doing it. Or, we can relax and wait for the unethical way to take root in the popular mind.

This way begins its growth by offering contrary data that casts doubts on the alleged facts of the matter. As it grows, unpleasant truths will be omitted or mitigated; and any fact that can be interpreted as supporting our decision will be exaggerated. And, without doubt, we'll learn how much the victim contributed to his or her own misfortune. As the unethical way attains maturity, sympathy for the perpetrator will be invoked by "enlightened" clerics, commentators, and defense counselors; and many sad experiences in his life will be cited as causes of his unfortunate choices. This sad history will be a catalytic agent that converts indifference to the victim into compassion for the perpetrator - which elevates us to the rank of superior individuals as it renders our guilt inert, shoving its impotent carcass back into a vanishing point in the horizon.

Between the victim's responsibility for the act and the perpetrator's excuses for committing it, we have not a crime but a subject for study and a requirement for the explications of learned men and those "visions and revisions" in our text books.

The transformation is not so subtle as we might suppose. The changes may occur so gradually that we barely notice them. Our attention has shifted onto other more pressing issues, and we can no longer give the matter the consideration we gave it when it was more newsworthy. (Consciously we may completely forget the details. Our brain, however, records every syllable of the epitaph. We will not escape the Lex Talionis.)

A good example of this transformation is the Kitty Genovese case.


In March of 1964 in a residential area of Queens, New York, a twenty-eight year old, petite young woman named Kitty Genovese drove home from her job as a manager of a sports bar at about three o'clock in the morning. Since her apartment was on the second floor of the first row of several rows of country-styled duplexes - the first floor of the front building was occupied by various businesses - it was necessary for her to enter her apartment from the rear. There was a total distance of about one hundred feet (30 meters) from where she'd park her car on the street, to the alleyway that went to the rear, and then to the entrance door that opened onto the stairway up to her second floor apartment.

As she left her car a man who was carrying a knife tried to grab her. She screamed for help as she started to run, but he caught her and stabbed her twice in the back, knocking her down in the street. Immediately lights went on in various apartments in the complex's front. She continued to scream as the man began to beat her. Several windows opened and from one of them, Robert Mozer, shouted at her attacker, "Let that girl alone!" The man released Kitty and ran to his car and drove away. The lights went out and the windows closed.

Sobbing and crying out for help, Kitty got to her feet and staggered back to the rear door of her apartment, but the door was locked and she could not open it. She supported herself going along the building until she reached a public door that led up to the entire second floor, As she opened it, her attacker returned "to finish her off," as he admitted at trial. She continued to cry out for help and tried to defend herself from his repeated stabbings (seventeen in all) leaving her with many defensive cuts on her hands. Lights at the rear part of the complex went on and windows opened.

Having finally silenced her, Kitty's attacker cut off her clothing, raped her, robbed her, and left. While this was occurring, one of the witnesses, Karl Ross, was calling a friend in Nassau County, New York. He asked for his advice. Should he call the police? His friend said yes and so Ross called the police. The noise having sopped, windows closed and lights went out. Within a few minutes of receiving Ross's call, the police arrived; but Kitty died on route to the hospital.

In succeeding days, officers from the 112th Precinct, canvassed the apartment complex and determined that aside from Ross and Mozer, a milkman and 37 tenants had seen or heard the attack - some, in the first row of duplexes, knew only of the attack that occurred in front, and some, in the second row of duplexes, knew only of the attack in the rear.

The New York Times, along with many other news outlets, wondered why no one had done anything to help this girl - if not going to her aid at least by calling the police in a timely manner.

The Times sent reporter Martin Gansberg to investigate. He researched the crime, interviewing the neighbors in the area. Two weeks later The Times ran his story under the headline, "Thirty-Eight Who Saw Murder Didn't Call The Police." Other important journalists and authors wrote about the incident as it became a national scandal.

Most of the people who saw or heard some part of the attack told the police that they didn't want to get involved in what was probably a lover's quarrel that had spilled over from a nearby bar; or that they couldn't get a good enough view of the attack; or that they were tired and assumed that if there were anything seriously wrong, others would make the call; or that they were fearful of involving themselves in what could be a criminal matter.

These, of course, were excuses for not acting. And placing each beside the life of an innocent girl... a girl who could be someone's daughter or sister or wife.... not to mention every woman who could, herself, be such a victim, showed the excuse to be unacceptable. Human decency was at issue. The public excoriated these thirty-eight individuals. Author and screenwriter Harlan Ellison did not curb his contempt when, in one of his books, he referred to the "thirty-eight motherfuckers" who did nothing to help Kitty Genovese.

Using the description given by the milkman, the police apprehended the attacker, Winston Mosely, a twenty-nine year old African-American married man, father, and job holder, who had no criminal record. Caught as he attempted to commit a burglary, Mosely confessed to having murdered Genovese and two other women in the preceding months. Some of the "thirty-eight" picked him out of a lineup and he was arrested for Genovese's murder.

And then the revisionist mentality kicked in. "Reasons" were given as upgraded substitutes for excuses:

The number of people who were aware of the attack was grossly inflated. At the most, only twelve people had any idea that there was a "disturbance" outside. It was March, windows were closed; and since she was stabbed "in the lungs," she could not possibly have "screamed" loud enough for anyone to hear.

The police were invariably rude and unhelpful whenever they received witness reports of assault and battery. There was no 9-1-1 system and it was necessary to telephone the precinct directly. People could hardly be blamed for refusing to subject themselves to the police department's insults and indifference. (In fact, dialing O would get the operator who would place the emergency call.)

Kitty Genovese's neighbors knew that she was a lesbian - she flaunted her lifestyle by always being seen in close company with her "roommate." Homophobia was stronger then and gays were considered disreputable. Some people might easily be morally disinclined to come to the aid of a homosexual.

What kind of woman walks the streets at 3 a.m.? It was her choice to take a job as a "barmaid." If she didn't have the means to defend herself she should have found different work and not relied on other "hard-working people who needed their sleep" to get up and come out in the cold to face a man with a knife and do her fighting for her.

People who live in large cities lack the intimate knowledge of neighbors that small town people have. In a city, when two unknown people appear to be fighting, an onlooker, especially at a distance, cannot immediately determine which one is the victim and which one is the perpetrator or if the screaming is rough-house play, drunken sport, or genuine distress.

The "Bystander Effect" and the "Diffusion of Responsibility" psychological states explain the failure of people to act. These theories postulate that the larger the number of observers of a distressing event, the less each individual is inclined to step forward to assist. Either a group member is too embarrassed to step forward or else he assumes someone else will do what is needed. A single person witnessing an event is more likely to intervene than thirty-eight persons who are part of a group.

Public attention then turned to the perpetrator. Mosely's defense attorney pleaded "not guilty by reason of insanity." Despite Mosely's cogent responses, his attorney referred to him as a victim of a "Doctor Jekyl-Mr. Hyde" type of insanity. "What sane person," he asked, "would commit such an attack in front of thirty-eight people?" The judge defined the criteria of the insanity defense and the jury considered it. Could Mosely tell right from wrong? The jury decided that he could and found him guilty of murder in the first degree.

At sentencing, four women testified that he had beaten, raped and robbed them. He was given the death penalty and sent to Attica prison. He appealed and the New York Appellate Court decided that his jury had not been given enough evidence of his mental state. They reduced his sentence to life in prison with the possibility of parole. He obtained a bachelor's degree while in prison and claimed to be a new man when he applied for parole (which was denied.)

Which brings us to the decision made by Mark Inglis of New Zealand and his party of eighteen mountaineers when they chose not to help a British climber, mathematics teacher David Sharp, who was in extreme need of assistance.

Mark Inglis, mountain climber, biologist and motivational speaker, is an extraordinary individual. A New Zealander, he grew up idolizing Sir Edmund Hillary, the New Zealander who, in 1953, along with Tenzing Norgay of Nepal, was the first man to succeed in climbing to the summit of Mount Everest. Hillary was a national hero and the man Inglis idolized and strove all his life to emulate.

In 1982, at 23, after Inglis had been marooned in a mountain ice cave for thirteen days, both of his lower legs, just below the knee, had to be amputated because of the severe frostbite he had suffered. Despite having to walk on prosthetic legs, he trained assiduously and in 2006 joined a party to climb Everest. The Discovery Channel would be filming the event.

In the last stage of the final assault on the summit, Inglis and his party came to an alcove called Green Boots after the Indian climber whose body was still inside it. David Sharp was stranded in the alcove, having been stricken with hypoxia as he descended from the summit.

Sharp identified himself and explained that he had no radio or satellite phone. But hypoxia causes mental confusion and hallucinations; and he had removed his outer mittens. Although he was less than 300 meters above his camp where his tent, sleeping bag, and the care of other helping climbers would have saved him, he needed help to get down to it. Inglis said he would call expedition leader Russell Brice at base camp to ask what he should do for David Sharp.

Brice, he said, told him that "at 8500 meters altitude it is difficult enough to keep yourself alive, let alone anyone else." Judging from the description of Sharp's condition, Inglis might as well continue on to the summit since it was clear that under such extreme conditions, Sharp was as good as dead. Inglis conveyed this to his fellow climbers, and they all continued their climb to the summit. There was, however, no record of any such call having been made. Brice routinely logged-in calls, and he vehemently denied ever having had such a conversation with Inglis. Inglis later attributed the account of the conversation to his own hallucinations from oxygen deprivation.

An experienced mountaineer, Sharp had attempted Everest twice in previous years, nearly reaching the summit both times. He could not afford to join one of the expensive, well-equipped and guided climbing agencies since he had no sponsor and his income was only that of a mathematics teacher. Yet, like many others, he felt confident that he could manage the climb alone with only basic supplies. But the weather had abruptly changed for the worst, causing him to exhaust his limited oxygen supply. When Mark Inglis and his party found him he was beginning to freeze. And it is here that the moral dilemma occurred.

If any members of Inglis's party had stopped to help the stricken Brit to get down to the safety of his camp, they would not have been able to attempt to climb to the summit. Some twenty other climbers had either not seen Sharp, or assumed he was the long dead "Green Boots," or had chosen to ignore his plight. For those who saw him, this and only this was the issue: help the stricken man or continue trekking to the summit.

Nine hours later, on his party's descent from the summit, Inglis again encountered David Sharp who was still alive but in far worse condition, his nose now blackened with frostbite. Inglis was struggling with his own frostbite issues and other members of his party were also struggling. They continued descending.

Later, two other descending climbers, Max Chaya of Lebanon and Dorjee Sherpa, did stop at the alcove to give Sharp some oxygen; and he rallied but not enough to support himself. His arms were useless and he kept slipping in and out of consciousness. He would have to be carried down in a rescue basket from their altitude of 27,500 feet, an impossible task for only two men, given the vertical drops that had to be negotiated. (Fifteen men are required to accomplish such a rescue.) Chaya radioed Brice who was hearing of Sharp's situation for the first time. Since Chaya and Dorjee did not have the equipment to lower Sharp's body and could not do it even if they had, Brice, realizing that their own lives were increasingly being jeopardized by their delay and knowing that his guides were already engaged in other critical situations and that it was impossible to get other rescuers to their position, ordered them to descend immediately. For an hour Chaya had refused to abandon Sharp, and only Sharp's moribund state and Brice's commands to descend, made him finally leave the expiring man. When Chaya and Dorjee Sherpa reached the safety of High Camp, hours later, Chaya collapsed in his tent and cried for two hours.

Inglis was ecstatic at the success of his climb. He would be an inspiration to amputees all over the world. He looked forward to receiving Sir Edmund Hillary's congratulations; but instead of applauding his achievement, Hillary expressed disgust to learn that personal ambitions had been more important to the climbers than lending assistance to a stricken man. With considerable ire, he condemned Inglis and the whole horrifying "conquering Everest at any cost" mentality that afflicts many mountaineers.

According to many responsible mountaineers, in order to satisfy a desire to be included in the elite group of climbers who have ascended the world's tallest mountain, men would profiteer unconscionably and even steal other climbers' equipment (around the time of Sharp's death, a Brazilian climber's supplies were stolen from his tent - a loss that contributed to his death on the mountain). Climbers left unimaginable amounts of trash - not to mention corpses of men who died or were callously left to die, on the mountain. They turned the mountain's base into a drunken, whore and huckster ridden carnival, and, in an old complaint, colored vast areas of the white snow and ice yellow with urine. An uncountable number of ropes were left dangling from the slopes like so much tinsel on a discarded Christmas tree.

Agencies from both China and Nepal would issue climbing permits to many climbers who lacked physical conditioning, experience, and training and were therefore unqualified to attempt the ascent. The only apparent qualification was the ability to pay.

Hillary, who had dedicated his life to improving the lives of the Nepalese and to the integrity and furtherance of mountaineering, was so disgusted by Inglis's party that he referred to them as "crazy" and "pathetic." This was not what Inglis had striven so long and hard to hear. And, needless to say, Hillary's remarks would not look good on a motivational speaker's resume.

Now began the campaign to blame the victim and excuse the decision to abandon Sharp:

Sharp had signed on with one of the least expensive guide agencies and had gone "on the cheap" with no professional guidance or backup, a hazardous course which not only endangered himself but other climbers as well. In the parlance of responsible mountaineers who pay the high cost of safety (some $75,000 each), Sharp was a "dirtbag."

When Sharp's body was recovered it was found to contain more than enough money to hire a sherpa to accompany him. His decision not to spend the money on his own safety was a principal cause of his death. (Sharp intended that the money be used to ship his body home in the event he died on the mountain.)

Expecting a non-professional guide to help an incapacitated climber, ignores the jeopardy to which he exposes his own life. The food, equipment, or oxygen he gives to another is given from supplies that he has brought for his own survival. Beyond this, he risks harm to himself as he physically assists the person. It is the same thing as expecting an onlooker to dive into a pool of sharks to save a non-swimmer because he is struggling in the water.

Instead of the ideal five or more tanks of oxygen, Sharp had taken only two obviously because he had vastly overrated his ability, failed to allow for emergency needs, or did not want to be burdened by the extra weight. Sharp was so ill equipped that he lacked basic clothing (the mittens he had removed) and while he did remember to carry a volume of Shakespeare and a Bible, he seemed to forget a vital piece of equipment: a radio. Why should any man give up his dream of conquering the mountain for the sake of helping someone who had no business being there in the first place?

On and on it went. We may yet find laws enacted to prevent persons like David Sharp from setting foot on the mountain.

If only we could legislate morality. We can write down the Golden Rule in every language in the world, but we cannot imbue a man with the kind of character that directs him to risk his own ego-self on the altar of unconditional love. The sacrifice of the small ego-self to the the Divine Self is the goal of religion, but attaining the goal sometimes requires uncommon valor.

Buddhist scripture resonates with what we sense is correct, and then it uplifts us and attaches heroic qualities to actions we want to believe we would take if confronted by the need to act. Scripture, then, instills and reinforces the desire to act ethically. It inspires us to do that right which is embodied in the Golden Rule. In the west, a hero's eulogy is likely to quote Jesus' words from the Gospel of John, 15:12-13. "This is my commandment. That ye love one another as I have loved you. Greater love hath no man than this: that a man lay down his life for his friends."

Sir Edmund Hillary lamented that climbers were losing the essence of the challenge. He insisted that the challenge wasn't man against the mountain: it was man against himself.

Whenever we volunteer to undertake any dangerous mission, we are actually striving to surpass old fearful limitations, to eradicate flaws within ourselves in the humility of the task, and to surrender our ego in supplication to our Lord. Sir Edmund would have been the first to agree that when climbing such a peak as Everest, we happily exchange our ego for the privilege of a deep breath of fresh air or for more strength in our will and our legs. The mountain, like a koan or a pilgrimage, is supposed to humble us. It is not supposed to glorify us, to be worn on our sleeve like a chevron, or to gain us entry into an exclusive club.

At the time of decision, we cannot stop to determine whether or not the victim is deserving of our care. And if we cannot do it then, we cannot later justify our decision not to help by insinuating that the victim was not worthy of our care. The Buddha often spoke of the Parable of the Poisoned Arrow. Reversing the roles, we see a man who has been shot with a poisoned arrow asking another man for help. In this case, the helper says, "I cannot help you until I know your family lineage. Were they members of the Brahman caste, or the Kshatriya, Vaishya, or Shudra caste, or were they outcastes? I cannot help you until I know what the tip of that arrow is made of. Is it made of iron or just obsidian? And the shaft of the arrow? Is it made of ficus wood or only pine?" And so on. By the time the questions are answered, the man will be as dead as David Sharp or Kitty Genovese.

In picking up the phone to call the police when we see or hear the sounds of someone being attacked, or foregoing a chance to take "our place in the sun" that shines on Everest's summit in order to help save a person's life, we serve the greater cause of human decency. We are doing for someone what we would have someone do for us.

Humming Bird