Eight days ago, Hugo Alfredo Tale-Yax, one of many Americans left jobless and homeless by the past couple years' market collapse, intervened in a violent domestic dispute and was stabbed multiple times. His "neighbors" responded by "minding their own business" -- stepping around his body until all the life had bled out of it -- until a schoolteacher notified the police that something was wrong. By then, it was too late.
Few Americans who read this story will avoid feeling shock, sadness, or at least some sort of disgust, but generic on how rotten people are, which is the dominant "point" being made in comment threads attached to articles on the killing, doesn't get us very far in understanding what happened, why it bothers us, and what kind of historical could make this kind of thing less likely (or even imaginable). At the same time, it's just as easy to resort to generalities about "culture," "society," "human nature" and the like as it is to chalk everything up to "individual choices" as though they occur in a vacuum. A more useful starting point is recognizing the complexity of what seems like a simple situation ("Good Samaritan ignored by hardhearted passersby, indicating the moral poverty of modernity"). None of the below musings are meant to be explanations; attempt at a univariable "explanation" for this sort of event would oversimplify it. Rather, it seems that this kind of tragedy should be a focal point in an ongoing conversation about the many ways in which it might typify, intersect with, shore up, or cut against a variety of historical patterns.
While a number of lessons could be drawn from a tragedy like this, one hopes that the primary one is not that drawn from the Kitty Genovese story: that cities are sites of inhuman dissociation and anomie, places where "real Americans" don't belong (except perhaps from 9 to 5), lacking the protections of the suburban cul-de-sac (an issue which Jonathan's works in progress will address). Ironically, however, there's no doubt that it's difficult to imagine this happening in the suburbs -- but not because that's where the real, good, true Americans live. For one thing, suburbs are typically empty during the day, and for another, homelessness is primarily an urban problem, spurred on in part by city budgets that no longer prioritize either preventive social services (such as education, healthcare, or job training and creation) or curative measures. City residents would do well to recognize the homeless as their neighbors, not as human detritus or parasites deserving only of contempt. At the same time, perhaps Tale-Yax's heroic attempt will humanize people in his position for Americans who don't live in cities, who experience homelessness only as a brief interlude on the nightly news (where, until recently, it has typically been presented as a pretty straightforward result of individual failings, with no awareness of broader social developments or trends).
The press has universally identified Tale-Yax based on two features: the fact that he was homeless, and the fact that he was a Central American immigrant. That is, he falls squarely into two categories of people that have been increasingly reviled for many, many years. If Tale-Yax had been wearing a crisp Brooks Brothers suit, would passersby have responded differently? As for his race, of course, it's not as though the events took place in Arizona, whose recent legislation is giving pause even to some of the hardest of immigration hard-liners. Nonetheless, the public's reaction to this tragedy will doubtlessly be prefigured by this aspect of Tale-Yax's background.
This tragedy also makes one wonder about the merits of relying solely on the police to protect us. Conservatives might argue that this indicates the need to protect individual gun rights. People all over the political spectrum could see it as a sign of the perhaps-unfortunate need for putting more police boots on the ground (notice that the fact that a camera recorded the entire incident did nothing to prevent it). But a more nuanced way of seeing this would be to consider the merits of community, of the neighborhood, of close quarters, as against the neo-frontiersman, mind-your-own-business ideals that have come to re-animate American middle class life in the past half-century.
While certain stereotypical suburbs (the easy targets) may best physically embody this mentality, it animates the lifestyles of millions of Americans living in other types of communities. As Jonathan has recently argued, what matters more than the absolute number of Americans whose lives perfectly embody the fast-food, SUV-commuting, McMansion stereotype is the fact that it's become a paradigm for what we as Americans are supposed to want, and to be. Nostalgia tends to be ahistorical, but it's hard to read a story like Tale-Yax's without longing for a period where people who lived near one another gave a damn about each other. We should interrogate the multitude of ways in which crime-fear and related stereotypes constitute the way we navigate our shared spaces, and what trade-offs we are able or willing to make to feel less atomized and afraid within them.
What, then, are the material conditions of possibility under which that sort of community feeling can arise, and how do they differ from current conditions in cities and suburbs, town and country, across America? What policy choices, construed broadly as possible, help give rise to an America where minding one's own business -- that is, hurrying up and getting to work, which takes a couple hours, thanks to changes in residential patterns and capital distributions, and where you have to stay for ten hours, since wages have been flat for almost forty years, and which doesn't really help you own a home, pay your medical bills, or put your kids through college -- takes precedence over noticing the man underfoot in a pool of his own blood?