Standing by to do good

The fatal choking of a homeless man on the New York subway has divided opinion across the nation. A former Marine, Daniel Penny, placed Jordan Neely in a headlock after Neely reportedly menaced passengers on the train. While news reports searched for “an angle”, this seems like the terrible and tragic culmination of a number of factors. Neely was a homeless drug-user with a string of criminal offenses to his name. No doubt he was traumatized by losing his mother as a teenager to homicide. 

Penny is described as “wanting to help people” and said he had no intention of harming Mr. Neely. Some New Yorkers were sympathetic saying they understand his reaction, given the amount of dicey situations faced by subway riders every day. 

But why has this killing gained such attention and not all the other ones that happen every day in that massive city? Some focused on the different races of the two men, with comparisons to George Floyd’s killing. Some media outlets recalled the 1984 case of “vigilante” Bernie Goetz, which shocked the city into cleaning up its act. Other reports blamed agencies and law enforcement for failing to help a man who was clearly mentally unwell. 

News of this death has lead to a renewed focus on the “bystander effect” and the ways people react when they encounter emergency situations or crime. Studies generally show that an individual is more likely to intervene in a situation when they are alone, feeling that it is up to them to help. But in small groups, people are often unwilling to break away to help. However, a “larger group size increased the probability that at least one person in the group would make a pro-social intervention.” Humans are complicated..

However, conservative and liberal media were divided on which bystanders were at fault in this case. Left-wing Refinery 29 said bystanders should have intervened to stop Penny from subduing Neely. But writing at The Federalist, Peachy Keenan applauded the actions of the young marine, warning that punishing his willingness to put himself in harm’s way for others will just create more bystanders.

The death has been ruled a homicide by coroners, but it will be up the court to decide whether Penny will be charged.

So pray for the families involved, for fairness to prevail and those who would stir violence or racial strife to be disregarded. Ask that God would preserve our nation from more turmoil and that people will have the courage to do good. We know that our Savior can bring good from every human tragedy. 

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