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Jack DeVine / March 7, 2022

World Policeman? Or Responsible Citizen?

Our nation must not be an impotent witness to the carnage in Ukraine.

The ongoing nightmare of Ukraine revives a long-buried memory of an incident that occurred nearly 60 years ago — vastly different in scale, but in some respects eerily similar.

Shortly after midnight on March 13, 1964, on a street corner in Queens, a young woman named Kitty Genovese was brutally attacked and stabbed to death. The New York Times reported that nearby residents heard her cries for help, and some watched in horror from the safety of their apartment widows. But no one came to her aid, and no one called the police.

Their reasons? The savagery they were witnessing, however horrifying, was none of their business. They were not legally required to come to Kitty’s aid. Further provoking her assailant might have had serious consequences. So instead, they watched and listened, no doubt hoping that it would stop, that the victim would recover, and that her bone-chilling screams would someday be forgotten.

Does any of that sound familiar? It should. An assault on a single victim in New York City is hardly comparable to the violent invasion of an entire country. But our rationale (or perhaps excuse) for choosing not to intervene in the senseless slaughter in Ukraine is largely the same. It’s not (yet) our problem. Ukraine is not a NATO member — we have no Article 5 obligation to defend her. Doing so might easily turn bad for us. We certainly don’t want to provoke Vladimir Putin into even more ghastly actions.

But the broader context is starkly clear. We are witnessing, in real time and in plain view, a barbaric and uncivilized act. It would be so if it were happening anywhere in the world, even if there were no NATO or no United Nations. The victim of the unprovoked attack desperately needs our help. We have the capability to provide that help, but we’re withholding it for fear of the consequences of doing so.

In fairness, let’s acknowledge that we (the U.S., NATO, and the free world) are not standing by idly — we are providing assistance to Ukraine in the form of weapons and financial aid, we’re imposing economic sanctions on Russia, and we are bringing the weight of world opinion into the fray.

In his State of the Union Address, President Joe Biden praised the united front presented by the West and the near-universal condemnation of Russia’s actions. But the simple fact is that we’ve known since day one of the Russian invasion that, while the actions we are taking may produce long-term accountability, they will not stop the ongoing carnage.

In 1964, revulsion over the Genovese killing and New Yorkers’ seeming unwillingness to confront it led to positive changes. The 911 emergency calling system was created. Kitty Genovese’s assailant was apprehended, convicted, and spent the rest of his life in jail.

Similarly, we can reasonably expect that once the sordid Ukraine mess is behind us, Putin will be held accountable for his atrocities. We may even learn from this debacle how to better anticipate and preempt future violent incursions by power-hungry imperialists. But — like Kitty Genovese — thousands of Ukrainians will still be dead.

The usual counterpoint to calls for aggressive U.S. intervention in Ukraine is that America is not, and should not try to be, “the world’s policeman.” Fair enough. But that prompts a question: What should our role be as a responsible world citizen — and as the political, economic, and military powerhouse that purports to be leader of the free world?

In my view, it is our inescapable responsibility to intervene in this ongoing humanitarian atrocity, in support of both Ukraine and civilization at large. We are now far past the point of constraining our actions for fear of provoking the international criminal who has demonstrated, time and again, that he needs no provocation at all to rain indiscriminate death and destruction on his chosen adversary. There’s no appeasing Vladimir Putin; he must be stopped.

The Russian attack is still proceeding at full tilt. Meanwhile, the fierce but overmatched Ukrainian defenders are holding on doggedly, still begging for help. Surely, we must not limit ourselves to standing safely on the sidelines, hoping for the best.

A 1964 murder in Queens has none of the global ramifications of today’s Russia’s barbaric assault on Ukraine. But remembering provides critical perspective. Think of Ukraine as a nation full of Kitty Genovese’s crying for help, while we consciously look away.

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