Death on the Subway

Nothing dominated the New York tabloids last week like the story of Ki-Suck Han, a Korean immigrant from Queens who was pushed to his death on the subway track while a crowd of passengers watched. The story took on a visual life of its own when R. Umar Abbassi, a freelance photographer for the New York Post who was in the subway station at the time of the incident, took pictures of Han trying to save himself.

The following day the Post featured the story on its front page. Next to Abbassi’s photo showing Han struggling to pull himself back onto the subway platform before the Q train arrived, the Post ran a caption with “DOOMED” in large block letters and, in smaller type, “Pushed on the subway track, this man is about to die.”

Not since 9/11, when papers across the country published Associated Press photographer Richard Drew’s The Falling Man, a picture of a man leaping to his death from the burning North Tower of the World Trade Center, have so many American newspaper readers been as outraged by the portrayal of someone in the last moments of life. But the biggest source of outrage in the Ki-Suck Han case has been the subway passengers who did nothing to help Han. Their reaction has been compared to that of the bystanders in the notorious 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese, a Queens bar manager who was stabbed to death by her assailant despite cries for help that went on over at least half an hour.

The New York Times, led by A. M. Rosenthal, then the paper’s metropolitan editor (he later served as future executive editor), transformed the Genovese case from a sordid murder to a lesson in urban passivity. Two weeks after Genovese’s death, the Times ran a front-page story that was as much editorial as news. “For more than half an hour thirty-eight respectable, law-abiding citizens in Queens watched a killer stalk and stab a woman in three separate attacks in Kew Gardens,” Times reporter Martin Gansberg wrote.

Gansberg’s account came across to readers as an illustration of what is now called the bystander effect, the psychological phenomenon where intervention becomes less likely when a group of onlookers, rather than a single person, witnesses a crime, because there is a diffusion of responsibility that leads people to believe others will act and they need not. That bystander concept continues to hold sway today. In the wake of Han’s death, New York Times columnist Joe Nocera has recycled the Times original Genovese story, linking it to the Han case as one more example of the bystander effect.

The problem with this anti–Good Samaritan view of the Genovese case is that the facts on which it is assumed to rest are not clear cut, as a variety of investigations show, particularly that of psychologists Rachel Manning, Mark Levine, and Alan Collins, who in the September 2007 American Psychologist pointed out the holes in the “parable of the 38 witnesses.”

Many of the so-called thirty-eight eyewitnesses to the attack on Genovese did not see what was happening or distinctly hear her cries for help, and despite the difficulty of reaching the police (there was no 911 system in place in 1964), there were Kew Garden residents who reported the attack to the police, according to subsequent testimony. The mixed responses to the Genovese murder—while falling far short of heroism—offer a far more complicated and ambiguous lesson than two very different generations of New York Times writers would have us believe.

Most disturbing from a journalistic point of view, the original New York Times story and Rosenthal’s book rely more on police accounts than interviews by newspaper reporters. Readers of the Times are not supplied with a transcript of what any of the thirty-eight witnesses said, and in his book on the Genovese case, Rosenthal acknowledges that the Times did not get far in speaking with the witnesses. “Two weeks later when this newspaper heard of the story, a reporter went knocking door to door, asking why, why,” Rosenthal writes. “Through half-opened doors, they told him.”

Where does that leave us today? The Han case is chilling, and it is only natural to wish that just one of the subway riders on the platform with him had shown the courage Wesley Autry, a fifty-year-old construction worker, did in 2007, when he made headlines by risking his life to save a stranger who had fallen onto the subway tracks. But there is an enormous gap between being a knight in shining armor, as Autry was, and being indifferent to the loss of life.

The man who shoved Ki-Suck Han was caught because one of the subway passengers on the platform with Han took the assailant’s picture with a cell phone. Why that passenger did not do more is a question for which we as yet have no answer, but we do know many of those who were at a distance from Han were, in all likelihood, standing so far away because they saw him, as well his attacker, as a menace. Han’s wife told the Post that Han was drinking heavily on the day of his death and that the two of them had a fight before he left home.

The uncomfortable truth is that we need to know more about the individual responses to Han from his fellow subway riders before we turn his death into another grim, urban parable. Our current desire for heroes should not get the better of us without firmer evidence than the Kitty Genovese case provided decades ago.

Nicolaus Mills is professor of American studies at Sarah Lawrence College and author of Winning the Peace: The Marshall Plan and America’s Coming of Age as a Superpower.