Savagery and Silence in the First World

In America – in my country – I fear we are losing the battle for our humanity. Some say we have already lost it.

Deep down I think they may be right.

Such is the level of violence, voyeurism and detachment displayed this October in Richmond, California, when at least two dozen students cheered, laughed or simply stood by and watched as a 15-year old girl was repeatedly raped, beaten and brutalized by an “unknown number of assailants.”

This horrific act of terrorism took place in the parking lot of Richmond High School, just yards away from where the school was holding its annual homecoming dance.

One school administrator told a reporter that, “the dance itself was successful.”

It seems the perpetrators of the crime had also staged a “successful” event. The assault reportedly went on for between two and three hours. During the entire time, everyone was cool, no one freaked out, no one called 911.

Some of the onlookers took photos with their cell phones. Others were composed enough to text their friends. Still another had the presence of mind to take the victim’s wallet before leaving the scene of the crime.

An officer at the scene could barely contain himself as he spoke to reporters. “They treated [the rape] as if it were something to be viewed,” he said. “Like an exhibit.”

“She was raped, beaten, robbed and dehumanized by several suspects who were obviously OK enough with it to behave that way in each other’s presence,” another patrol supervisor in the city’s Northern Policing District in Richmond said. “What makes it even more disturbing is the presence of others. People came by, saw what was happening, and failed to report it.”

We Like to Watch

“Being an American has become a spectator sport,” wrote Bob Herbert recently in his column for the New York Times.

Herbert was right.

The savage nature of the rape at Richmond High is horrific enough on its own, yet at least as alarming is the national pandemic of ‘violence as spectator sport.’

The passive voyeurism of those who stood by cheering and laughing like an audience at some macabre sideshow while their classmate was being ruthlessly dehumanized is only one of many such incidents making news recently. This phenomenon further demonstrates how complacent Americans have become even in the face of unspeakable crimes and real life inhumanity.

Coincidentally, the cowardly act of terrorism that took place in Richmond, California came virtually on the heels of a less publicized, but equally disgusting display of soullessness. This one however, was perpetrated not by thugs in a Richmond schoolyard but by 30 Republican Senators in the Hallowed Halls of the US Senate when, in early October they opposed an amendment to close a legal loophole denying employees of private defense contractors the right to sue if sexually abused or gang raped while on the job.

The amendment, sponsored by Senator Al Franken (D-Minn.), was inspired by the brutal gang rape of KBR employee Jamie Leigh Jones in 2005 by her fellow employees. It passed on October 21 by a vote of 68-30 over the vehement objections of Department of Defense, who lobbied the ‘Gang of 30’ Republicans relentlessly. In a transparent attempt to justify their unjustifiable position, DOD wrote in a memo to the Senate that, “Enforcement would be problematic.”

The Savagery of Silence

American youth have garnered an arguably well-deserved reputation for being lazy, self-absorbed and detached from reality, a phenomenon that may well be (at least in part) the result of too much television and gaming and not enough natural and social contact. To be sure, television marked the beginning of the ‘spectator mentality,’ and there is little doubt that the high-tech industry, with its relentless hype of texting and tweeting on trendy, over-priced toys has taken this spectatorship to a dangerous new level.

Here in the US, most people understand that (if we have not already reached it) we are approaching critical mass – not only with respect to our ‘spectator mentality’ or our detached indifference to violence, but with respect to almost everything. The problem isn’t that we don’t know what is wrong. The problem is that we fail to act – or to speak out – even when we do. This was no more apparent than when the mother of one of the alleged perpetrators in the Richmond attack told police, “My son wouldn’t do that. He knows better.”

I often read the comments of readers, many of whom express feelings of hopelessness and despair over the degree to which American culture is disintegrating or the state of the world in general. Others have nothing but contempt for anyone with a shred of idealism or who (god-forbid), still believe the American political system – or Democracy itself – can be salvaged. Still others seem to be falling into darkness. I recall in particular one reader who asked, “What good are all of your eloquent words? No matter what you or anyone else says, America is hopelessly lost.”

Those who make such comments might be interested to know that I actually agree with most of them – or at least with their basic sentiments. But I’ve long since accepted that being an activist and a writer, futile though it may be, is who I am. The ship may be going down, but like the orchestra on the Titanic, I keep playing.

To those who content themselves with sitting in the bleachers heckling rather than doing or sneering rather than speaking out, I would submit that the process of de-humanization is a slow and stealthy one. Like the incident at Richmond High School or the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or over-consumption waste and greed, de-humanization requires at least some degree of complicity.

One click and it can cross over.Sandy Leon Vest is a radio and print journalist and the editor-publisher of SolarTimes, an independent quarterly energy newspaper with a progressive point of view. SolarTimes is available online at, and distributed in hardcopy throughout the San Francisco Bay Area and beyond. Sandy LeonVest’s work has been published nationally, as well as internationally, and includes 15 years at KPFA Radio in Berkeley, CA. Photo from Flickr by BlueLinden