Millennial Generation Needs a Civic Coming of Age

Lululemon murder is just one of many examples of the lack of civic duty.

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It was the Apple that didn't bite—not the dog that didn't bark—in a woman-on-woman slaying in downtown Bethesda.

The victim cried for help that never came, even though two Apple employees heard every word through a shared wall. They did absolutely nothing on a March night. Instead, a 30-year-old woman suffered 331 cuts and wounds inflicted by the killer and bled to death in a chic yoga-centered Lululemon store, her workplace. A co-worker was convicted last week of the murder committed after closing time, when only the two of them were inside the retail hotspot. It was a furious struggle and a blood-splattered scene like nothing detectives had ever seen. What is wrong with these people? Why didn't the two Apple workers, also closing up shop, call the police when they heard a woman being murdered next door? It doesn't happen every day.

It's not just them. It's us.

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Just as Apple co-founder Steve Jobs has been eulogized everywhere, this tragedy raises a vexing issue with the (arguably) self-absorbed culture he did so much to create. A culture so close and yet so far. The tragedy of doing nothing. Situational awareness, for one thing, is absent here. A sense of real time and public place is sometimes lacking in people who wander around glued to their iPhones, chattering or thumb-texting away. That makes them "away" without leave, disconnected from what is in front or all around. In the Lululemon case, a nearby security guard was listening to his iPod, so he missed a chance to actually do his job and be a hero. And how many murders have we all watched on the small and large screen, giving us a kind of immunity or detachment to the deed itself in real space?

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"God help me. Please help me." As the Washington Post reported, the two Apple employees, a male and female, stood next to the wall, listened to some of victim's anguished last words, and then went back to what they were doing. Her mutilated body was discovered the next day.

In somewhat scornful court testimony, Apple employee Ricardo Rios said the situation seemed like "drama," to him, as if it was two women in a catfight, a view he expressed that night when asked by a co-worker for his opinion. We need more people less like him.

This differs from the Kitty Genovese case in 1964, a case study of people just watching through their windows as a fatal attack in an apartment courtyard in Queens, N.Y., took place. Then, the bystander effect was explained as an instance of everyone thinking someone else would do something. But in the Lululemon slaying, there was no way the Apple employees could know other people knew what was going on, given the streets were dark, emptied of the usual volume of foot traffic.

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The apple that didn't bite: Does it indicate a crying need for more civic religion? Greedy as they were in the Gilded Age, the robber barons bequeathed society much more wealth in libraries, museums, universities, symphonies, and other cultural institutions than Steve Jobs did with his enormous $8 billion fortune.

This is a sketch of some troubling points, dots that may connect over time. I welcome thoughts on this working theory, which can't be proven at this stage.

In any case, our youthful digital and virtual culture is now getting its first real-world outing, and we'll see how it takes. The "Occupy" movement stretching across several cities has been criticized for being vague, loose, without specifics and specific demands. With some friends, I walked through the tent colony pitched outside Philadelphia's City Hall Saturday and it wasn't clear what it's all about. But their discontent is clearly born of demoralization, with the sense of something lacking in a gloomy economy—and maybe more. Maybe they need more living to do, out in the public square.

My my, hey hey: the "social media" Millennial generation having a civic coming of age? Maybe—and not a moment too soon. All they have to lose is their screens.

  • See photos of the "Occupy" protests.
  • See political cartoons on Occupy Wall Street.
  • Read a timeline of the Occupy Wall Street protests.