Tragedy On the F Train
A problem with no solution
It has now been 2.5 weeks since Jordan Neely died on the F train in Manhattan. Ordinarily, we wouldn’t still be talking about the tragic death of a mentally ill homeless man 2.5 weeks later. Yet here we are, simply because Neely was black and the man who killed him is white. Aaron Renn astutely points out how it’s been framed in headlines as “The Killing On the Subway” — the killing. Which one? The only one that matters, apparently.
In the narrative spin around this case, “tragedy” is a word many people don’t want to accept. Indeed, leftist narratives of everything are rarely content with tragedy. Every story must have a villain. Everything must ultimately be the fault of somebody who should have done something, if only he had cared enough. We see this cycle play out on endless repeat across a plethora of issues—mass shootings, racial violence, immigration crises at home and abroad, the homelessness crisis. Jordan Neely’s death is particularly explosive, lying as it does at the intersection of multiple narratives.
To be fair, I also think we can place some blame on some people for Neely’s case—specifically, the kind of leftists whose policy guidance left a man like Neely still wandering the streets after 40-some arrests and multiple counts of assault. So, if we wanted to play the blame game, two can play at it. However, I find myself surprisingly giving credit to New York’s Democrat mayor, Eric Adams, for honestly recognizing the role of involuntary commitment in addressing this catastrophe. Adams has always made this a campaign plank, and his willingness to maintain it at odds with the narrative around Neely is commendable.
Meanwhile, while protestors were shamelessly using Neely’s death to stage hazardous subway stunts and prevent ordinary New Yorkers of all races from getting to work on time, the usual suspects in the pundit class were shamelessly using it to justify all their theories of Race and Racism in America. Jacqui Lewis, referring to the GoFundMe that raised millions in support for Penny, called the fundraiser “a publicly sponsored lynching…communal celebration, like taking home a picture of the tree.” Al Sharpton preached at the funeral, because of course he did. Penny’s own reaction to this is priceless. According to yesterday’s interview with the New York Post, Penny’s first since the killing, he nodded pensively after a bit of Sharpton’s speech was read to him, then said, “I’m not sure who that is. I don’t really know celebrities that well.”
Throughout the interview, Penny comes across as the precise opposite of whatever image the media has conjured up for itself. A child of divorce who remains close to his family and looks up to his grandfathers. A loyal Marine. A world traveler. Curious, open-hearted, guileless. In short, a normal dude.
More choice black media bits are collected in one Twitter thread here. “Why is it that when a black person becomes emotional, they are a threat?” asks one gentleman on TV. “Black people don’t think the same way about anyone else in the world. We are very unique [sic].”
Awkwardly, it’s a self-described “woman of color” who recently told the New York Post that she considers Penny a “hero” and is grateful to him for stepping in while she and other passengers were badly frightened by Neely. Among other things, she reported that Neely said he was “willing to kill a motherf—er.” An early NBC New York 4 report also included an eyewitness report that he had said, “I’ll hurt anyone on this train.” I’m not sure why I haven’t seen that line get repeated in subsequent reports, since it would seem relevant, to put it mildly. It’s certainly less convenient to focus on than his demands for water and food, which were erratic and aggressive but not violent per se.
The fact that Neely was hungry and thirsty has naturally been used to heap shame on anyone with the audacity to call Penny a hero or a Good Samaritan for stepping in. Elizabeth Bruenig, a little more polished but still clearly tipping her hand, writes in The Atlantic that the case represents “an absence of compassion” in “a country governed by fear.” Notice the presumption that one couldn’t have compassion for Neely while still judging that someone needed to restrain him. Again, this is consistent with the leftist narrative of everything: When tragedy happens, it must be because, unlike the anointed leftist, other people don’t care.
In fact, by all accounts, Penny didn’t act with malicious intent, was not callous, and was deeply distressed by the end of the ordeal. Yes, he seems to have miscalculated the consequence of the force he used, all of which will be excruciatingly analyzed if he stands trial. Yet Penny accepted the consequence of this miscalculation admirably. He remained on the scene and cooperated fully with the police. Instead of fleeing the state or the country, he turned himself in. These aren’t the actions of a stone-cold killer, even though fresh vitriol is certainly coming over his quiet nod “Yes” when the Post asked him if he would act the same way again. Obviously, what he means is that he wouldn’t stare at his phone and do nothing. He would still act. What did you expect him to say?
Vice lives up to its name with a post seething that people have rallied to support Penny in a way that recalls how people rallied around Kyle Rittenhouse. Which will only make the ordinary sensible reader think, “Huh, that’s right. That Kyle Rittenhouse was a good kid who got put through hell too. Thanks for the reminder, Vice.”
Granted, there can be a tendency on the right side of the aisle to make instant folk heroes out of figures like Rittenhouse and now Penny. This is an understandable human impulse, in an age desperate for heroes. Both Rittenhouse and Penny’s treatment in the public square understandably stirs feelings of resentment and anger. It truly does seem that this is, as one headline put it, “no country for brave men.” It’s the perfect opportunity for the ruthless cynic to say, “See? This is what happens when you stick your neck out. So don’t. Look away. Look at your phone. Let the old woman get clocked. Let the girl get dragged by the hair. Not your circus, not your monkeys.”
As a society, we are foolish—no, we are stark, raving mad—to punish the very few men left who are unwilling to take the way of the ruthless cynic. So you’ll forgive me if I don’t have much energy for tut-tutting people who, like Penny’s fellow passengers, describe him as a Good Samaritan or even, heaven forbid, a “hero.” With that said, I do hope that if he comes through all of this vindicated, he will be allowed to pick up the pieces of his life in peace, as he clearly wants to do. I hope he won’t be turned into something he’s not, or shoved into a political limelight he’s never sought.
But what about Jordan Neely? He did die, after all. Was he not worthy of sympathy? Penny’s parents may have been divorced, but his father didn’t murder his mother and shove her body in a trunk. Neely's stepfather—if “mother's boyfriend” even merits the title—did. What does that do to a boy? To his spirit, his mind, or even just his brain?
To ask the question is to gaze into an abyss and almost despair. Of the goodness of God, of the goodness of life, of any confidence that light will prevail over darkness, right over wrong.
And yet, if we are to be honest, if we are to remember Neely as a man who could choose his actions and not an animal who couldn’t, then we must not use his trauma to erase the innocent people he would traumatize in turn. The old woman he punched in his face, or the little girl he dragged down the street. If he had succeeded in actually killing or raping any of these people, maybe he would have been secured behind the protective barrier his fellow citizens deserved. As it is, he was failed by a broken system, over and over again.
Ironically, I saw one progressive objecting from the left to the media’s push to whitewash Neely’s image, as they desperately circulated the same old picture of him as a doe-eyed Michael Jackson impersonator. To this observer, it was just the sanitized left-wing version of a bipartisan impulse to ignore Neely in his pathetic final state. The media understands instinctively that it was hard to love Neely when he was sick, smelly, overweight and frightening. So they grabbed the air freshener and tried to distract everyone with the memory of when he was fit, fun, harmless.
In its own way, this “haiku” some smarmy chap was very pleased with tries to do the same thing:
Jesus is a 30 year old black man
riding the subway
The thing isn’t even a haiku, let alone a good haiku. But more importantly, it’s deceptive by omission. The harrowing truth about Neely was that he was not simply a sad, sick man. For a man who was merely sad and sick, many of us might be moved. Some might even dare to die. But Neely was a sad, sick man who was also capable of violence—violence against innocent people who didn’t deserve it. If we seek to absolve him of his choices by virtue of his misfortune, then we must ask how it is that Neely chose to drag a young girl down the street, but this homeless man chose to protect young girls with his body during a mass shooting. The only honest answer is that unfortunate men remain men, with all this entails, for good and for evil.
And so, as we quake over the abyss, we must ask what it really meant to love Jordan Neely. The whole Jordan Neely. Eerily, while scrolling Facebook just now, I randomly hit upon this quote from a Christian writer: “If man really is fashioned, more than anything else, in the image of God, then clearly it follows that there is nothing on earth so near to God as a human being. The conclusion is inescapable that to be in the presence of even the meanest, lowest, most repulsive specimen of humanity in the world is still to be closer to God than when looking up into a starry sky or a beautiful sunset.” Here it must be said, of course, that “the meanest, lowest, most repulsive specimen of humanity” is just as apt to look like a nice-smelling, clean-shaven businessman, tuxedoed and in his right mind. Speaking for myself, some of my own closest encounters with repulsive human specimens have been with men who like to think of themselves as Christians.
But I digress. The point is that this writer is absolutely right. And he can be absolutely right at the same time that Daniel Penny was absolutely right. This is impossible for some people to even conceive. But it’s true. Truth hurts, sometimes.
How does one solve a problem like Jordan Neely? You can dope him, you can commit him against his will, you can put him in jail, but how do you solve him? How do you solve the problem of which Jordan Neely is merely the latest and saddest manifestation?
The answer, of course, is that you don’t. Because Jordan Neely was a man, not a problem. And men, unlike problems, don’t come with a solutions key.