There are many reasons to get to know your neighbors, but freeing hostages isn’t the most common.
Still, this past week you may have asked yourself why you know so little about that guy on the corner. I did.
It’s a natural reaction to any big event in the news to look at our own lives for risks, or to think through how we would handle a given situation. Why didn’t those neighbors in Cleveland know? Because at first they said the suspect in the kidnapping of three young women was a regular guy and nothing was amiss? Later, when some neighbors said they’d had suspicions about goings-on at the house and even called the police, the question became: Why didn’t the police go into the house and look around? Why didn’t neighbors persist?
If it had been me, well, you know, it’s always clear in retrospect.
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Ariel Castro is the man charged with kidnapping three young women, two when they were in their teens and one when she was 20, and then keeping them captive in his house for a decade with neighbors going about their business all around.
Neighbors say they once saw a naked woman crawling in the backyard. Police visited the house twice, but never went inside. This is an extreme case, and yet missed opportunities are familiar in all kinds of cases.
Sometimes when crimes go undetected it’s because people are weighing the balance between excessive intrusion and the right to privacy that we all cherish.
Also, very often people see something odd and figure someone else will deal with it. We may check to see how other people are reacting. If everyone else seems to be going about their business, usually we do, too, because we take cues from each other.
There is safety in sticking with the crowd, but being social animals also means we do better when we work at building mutually beneficial relationships. The healthier a neighborhood is, the less likely something like this could go on for so long, because people would be more connected and more likely to support each other in addressing suspicious circumstances.
Yet only 43 percent of Americans surveyed by the Pew Research Center in 2010 said they knew all or most of their neighbors by name.
My home is in a low-key Seattle kind of neighborhood. People are friendly and concerned, but our lives are not intertwined like they usually are on TV sitcoms where someone from next door or across the street is always on the couch.
The news often doesn’t look like most people’s lives, either. Stranger abduction is rare. Most teens who are kidnapped are taken by a family member, usually a parent during a separation or divorce. I saw a Department of Justice report on abductions in which stranger abductions were called “stereotypical kidnapping,” because they’re what people worry about, and people worry about them because they are the kind of kidnappings that makes news. But we can, without overreacting, be aware that they do happen and say something if we have suspicions. I think people in my neighborhood would do that.
People on my block, most of us anyway, wave, shout hello, exchange a few words and sometimes mention if there’s something unusual going on. People in cities have to be more intentional about knowing their neighbors than people in small towns, and some neighborhoods are more conducive to that than others. We know enough about each other on my block to feel like we’d know if something were amiss, though there are never guarantees.
There’s that one house, though, that I should probably find out more about, and now I will.
Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or firstname.lastname@example.org