The psychological explanation for what happened to Catherine Ferreira is neat and tidy and sounds like reason. "The bystander effect," explains Psychology Today on its website, "occurs when the presence of others hinders an individual from intervening in an emergency situation." While people are more apt to step in if they are the only ones available to do so, the magazine says that when gathered in groups, they tend to hold back and look to one another for cues on what to do.
It is a definition that manages to explain everything without explaining anything. Certainly, it doesn't make it any easier to watch the online video as Ferreira, 27, is attacked by another woman, a McDonald's co-worker, behind the restaurant, as she is savagely beaten, kicked and cursed while a crowd of about a dozen people gathers, watches, and does absolutely nothing.
Well, no, that's not entirely fair. They do take out their cellphones and record the action.
The attacker has been identified by police in Salem, N.J., as 25-year-old Latia Harris. After almost a week on the run, she turned herself in last Monday and at this writing is behind bars for want of $20,000 bail. Authorities say she was angry Ferreira had gossiped about her.
While Harris' alleged crime is inarguably execrable, I find myself even more appalled by what those onlookers did -- or more, accurately, did not do. That was also a crime, even if it appears in no criminal code.
Almost 20 years ago in this space, I celebrated a teenage girl named Keshia Thomas. Thomas, who is African-American, saw an angry mob of counter-demonstrators at a Ku Klux Klan rally beating and stomping a white man wearing a Confederate flag T-shirt and an SS tattoo. She separated herself from the mob and threw her body on top of his to shield him. Her physical courage was remarkable, but it was her moral courage that truly inspired. Too often, we bear witness instead to moral cowardice, to ethical imbecility that welds us to the unthinking mob like cows in a herd.
Keshia Thomas speaks to what we can be.
But that crowd with the cameras speaks to what we too often are: indifferent, desensitized, estranged from our own humanity.
Sometimes, there comes a moment of deciding: are you the crowd, or the woman? Are you the mob or the man? That moment may tell you more about yourself than you ever wanted to know.
And it is an admonition to parents that the songwriter gave good advice: Teach your children well.
Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 3511 NW 91st Ave., Doral, FL 33172. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.