Why Good Samaritans drove by

Is rape only real if it's on `Crimewatch?'

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No one need feel alone walking towards Watts Lane in the south London suburb of Chislehurst at 7pm on a weekday. The traffic is heavy - I counted 44 cars per minute - and the odd bus trundles by, too. But, last week a woman was attacked for five long minutes on this pavement. That is up to 220 cars' worth of time. Any of them could have stopped or called the police. Not one of them did.

"It's an indictment of the way we live that people choose to look the other way," said a man who lives nearby. "This should shame us all. Whatever happened to the Good Samaritan?"

He is still there - in myth at least - in Luke, chapter 10, verse 30. But the Samaritan who rescued the traveller who had been stripped, beaten and left for dead by robbers on his way from Jerusalem to Jericho has changed. These days his compassion has acquired a structure. He helps at the local hospital, ladles up lunch in the soup kitchen, buys The Big Issue. When he is not volunteering, he is on Neighbourhood Watch.

But people say that he is not immune from fears about crime, or from the pressures of this busiest of seasons. "The Good Samaritan during this season is also the `I've-got-everything-to-do-before-Christmas Samaritan'," says Dr Helen Haste, of Bath University, who has studied "bystander apathy". "It is one of those stories we are told, but it's very difficult to find out how much we really believe in its values."

We certainly like to think we do and the "see no evil" commuters of Chislehurst took a drubbing last week. "They should be ashamed of themselves" was a typical comment. And yet this is no isolated incident. Over the past year the public has looked the other way as a 24-year-old woman was kidnapped on the Underground, and ignored the cries for help from a 15-year-old being raped in Wigan. Bystander apathy is a disease of our time.

"I don't even know if the idea of a good citizen or Samaritan exists," says Kris Black, at the London Rape Crisis Centre. "You hear about a woman being raped and yelling out of the window, `help me', and people turning around and laughing at her openly. My guess is that somehow there is a thing engendered in us that means that is OK to protect property, but people don't matter, somehow."

Today's good neighbour feels comfortable about protecting property. The home security market nearly trebled in size during the late Eighties and continues to boom in the Nineties. She or he belongs to one of the 150,000 Neighbourhood Watch schemes in the UK. "Today the talk is about moving from being the eyes and ears of the police to being the heart and soul of the community," Maggie Wright, an insurance representative, told a conference on the subject.

Yet each street in Chislehurst boasts a Neighbourhood Watch and this did nothing to help the 36-year-old civil servant as she fought her attacker last Tuesday. Every inch of her face was bruised and cut, and her cheekbone broken. She could see the drivers' faces as they stared at her until, finally, she was dragged behind the prickly gorse hedge that runs along Chislehurst cricket ground, and raped.

Twenty-eight years ago in New York, Kitty Genovese also saw the faces of her rescuers turn away. Some of the 37 people who heard her cries for help responded by increasing the volume of their television sets. No one called the police, and in half an hour Kitty was dead. Subsequent research showed that her big mistake - and that of the Chislehurst rape victim - was to be attacked on a busy street.

"As long as we think other people are around, we are less likely to act," says Professor Bibb Latane, of Florida Atlanta University, who studied the Genovese case. "Each individual looks at a worrying event and decides it may not be as bad as he fears, because others are not doing anything."

"We have this belief in our culture that we do help. In fact, we often do not," says Dr Haste. In Chislehurst this was compounded by the fact that everyone was cocooned in a car and the traffic was busy. We also find it worrying when we see a man and a woman fighting - no one likes to intervene in domestic disputes - but the main reason everyone gives is safety fears. "It's quite proper for people to think of their own safety," says Eric Shegog, the director of communications for the Church of England. "They have other responsibilities, or maybe they are family people. So you've got to weigh up the risks, and the likelihood that you would be able to influence the situation."

But the Good Samaritan had such considerations too, and research shows that certain people do end up intervening in some way - perhaps only by calling for help - regardless of fears of traffic flow or embarrassment. They do so because they believe it is the right thing to do; they tend to have been brought up in families that gave them a strong sense of personal responsibility. They were taught that the buck does not stop with their neighbours or the next car, but with themselves.

"There has been a lot of research into people who did extraordinary things, such as helping Jews during the Holocaust," says Dr Haste. "What is striking about this is that people say: `I did not have a choice. I'm not unusual. I'm not very brave.' That's what they feel."

Kris Black does not think she is brave, either, but she does intervene - not always with the best of results. The other night she was in a minicab when she saw a young woman being pushed to the pavement by a man. The minicab stopped and they ran over to help. "The woman was pregnant and, when she came to, it was clear she had been drinking," says Ms Black. "Then she attacked the cab driver."

Would you have intervened, or have waited for your conscience to be tickled? Police say they have finally had a good response to their appeal in Chislehurst, but no arrests have been made. Who knows, it may end up being re-enacted in Crimewatch. The BBC says that some 1,500 people ring in after every programme. Perhaps the Good Samaritan these days is alive and well, and just waiting for Crimewatch to jog his memory.

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