A Strangler in a Strange Land

Daniel Penny killed Jordan Neely with his bare hands on video, but every institution in New York seems to be on Penny’s side. Why?

A Strangler in a Strange Land

Edited by Spencer Ackerman

THE GOOD SAMARITAN is a parable Jesus tells in the Gospel of Luke about the problem of community. It’s very short. It goes like this:

A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and took off, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came upon him, and when he saw him he was moved with compassion. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, treating them with oil and wine. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him, and when I come back I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers? (Luke 10:30-37, NRSV)

A couple of Jesus’ parables are quite hard to understand and occasionally border on perverse. This is not one of them. You can tell because he ends the story with a question. The Samaritan was a better neighbor than the priest or the Levite, both of whom owed the wounded man aid and didn’t give it to him because it is much, much easier to come up with a reason not to give a dollar or a sandwich or attention than it is to take a moment for every person who seems to need it. Everyone who lives in community with suffering people—which is to say, everyone, full stop—knows this.

I often tell myself that I can’t help everyone who seems to need it; if I did, I would end up just like them, and wouldn’t that be horrible? Imagine falling through the ever-widening cracks in our society to a place where I must live moment to moment at the mercy of strangers on their way somewhere. Perhaps you are going home from work, or to pick up your kids at school, or to the grocery store or a date or the movies, and I am trying impossibly hard to express exactly the amount and kind of desperation that will convince a passerby like you that the pleasure of taking pity on me will be worth the cost of acknowledging me. A life of forever bothering people.

Live long enough in New York and you will not be able to avoid getting to know the homeless people in your neighborhood by sight. This can be a real pleasure—people are people whether or not they’re poorer than you are, and you may learn that poverty strikes them down irrespective of inherent intelligence or charm or personal decency. But the knowledge of these people can also be frightening. People in dire straits have fewer compunctions, and this can feel dangerous. It can also be horrifying. Today, I saw a woman I have often seen begging on the subway, usually in extreme distress. Often she talks to herself constantly, sometimes undressing. Today she was outside Dunkin Donuts this morning, screaming. She only has one leg now. This is a person I am in community with. I don’t know what to do for her, but she is, as Jesus himself would have it, my neighbor.

DANIEL PENNY, THE SUBWAY STRANGLER, tall, lantern-jawed, his hair in trembling blonde ringlets, wearing a clean suit and handcuffs, was marched into a police car in front of cameras on Friday in the company of his lawyer Tom Kenniff. For what bystanders estimated to be fully 15 minutes, Penny choked a homeless man named Jordan Neely to death on the subway not quite two weeks earlier, after which the police questioned and then released him. At least two New York City newsrooms withheld his name from the public while video of the murder circulated on Twitter.

It’s still not clear to me why Penny’s name was first released by an antifascist activist who goes by @sxarletred on Twitter, and not by a New York City news outlet. When a guy is running around choking out his fellow subway passengers—Penny was a free man until his Friday arrest, and is free again after posting bail—his name seems to me to be of urgent public interest to any of your readers who ride the subway.

This, too, is a story of community, and of “quality of life” crimes, which are broadly imagined to be a scourge rendering this city unlivable by people who do not live here. Kenniff ran for district attorney of Manhattan, where he did not grow up and does not live, against Alvin Bragg, now the city’s first Black D.A. Kenniff's platform was one of putative concern for victims of crime in New York County, which he contended, against mountains of evidence, had been made worse by a new law making it harder to imprison poor people using the cash bail system (which, again, troubled Penny not at all). To Kenniff, who lives in a place where homeless people are most often visible through the windshield of his car, “crime” means being dirty, being loud, loitering, drinking a beer held in a paper bag, smelling bad, or sleeping in a doorway or a cardboard box. It does not mean putting prisoners in solitary confinement for no reason, or beating protesters, or separating mothers from their babies, or choking a man to death on the subway. Those things, in Kenniff’s mind and in the minds of many conservatives, are merely the work of dutiful citizens fed up with a state of disorder brought about by a culture of permissiveness. This perspective is hardly exclusive to people outside the city, but it is much more common there, and perhaps that is why so many NYPD officers including the commissioner simply don’t live here. New Yorkers tend to live at the mercy of armed officials who commute into our community to police it.

I suppose it ought not to shock me that Kenniff’s position is shared by so many people, some of them supposedly compassionate, but it does. Many of them have seen fit to exhume Neely’s criminal record in considering the motivations of his killer. “Most notably, in November 2021, Neely punched and seriously injured a 67-year-old woman as she exited the subway,” wrote David French, one of the New York Times’s conservative columnists, in a fatuous piece preoccupied with various misdeeds attributed to Neely—who, again, was killed in public on video—and “the rule of law” on Friday. French, from his home in Franklin, Tennessee, deplores the lack of “meaningful consequences,” for the assault, which included a year and three months on Rikers Island. Rikers is so notoriously inhumane that it must by law close its doors in 2027 and was ordered last month to pay $53 million to people who were held for extended periods in pretrial detention in brazen violation of the most basic laws of this country. But again, those are not the laws with which conservatives like French are concerned:

Neely spent 15 months in jail while the case awaited resolution, but ultimately he was not sentenced to prison. Instead he was told to report to a treatment facility, where he was to remain for 15 months and stay drug-free. [“Drug-free” is not quite accurate here since Neely was also instructed to remain on his antipsychotic medication.] He left after 13 days. A warrant was issued for his arrest, but in spite of subsequent encounters with outreach workers and at least one with the police, he was not taken back into custody.
Think of the many failures that put Neely on the train that day. Treatment efforts were inadequate. The sentence for his unprovoked assault did not match the severity of the crime — and, in any case, it was not enforced. When he walked away from the facility, the police failed to arrest him again. One can both be troubled by the problems of mass incarceration and recognize that just sentences for violent crimes should remove the perpetrators from the streets for substantial periods.
In short, Neely should not have been in that subway car; he should have still been in the treatment facility or in jail. But he was on the subway, and his conduct was deeply disturbing. While reports are still incomplete, Neely was reportedly aggressive and menacing toward his fellow passengers. A witness stated that he was yelling, “I don’t have food. I don’t have a drink. I’m fed up.” He also reportedly said: “I don’t mind going to jail and getting life in prison. I’m ready to die.”
There is no evidence that Neely assaulted anyone, but

And here my patience with French ends.

The Wall Street Journal went further still. In a piece called “Charging Daniel Penny, the Subway Samaritan,” bylined by its editorial board, the Journal writes:

Was Mr. Penny wrong to intervene? The details of what happened will presumably be presented at trial, but it’s clear his intention wasn’t to kill Neely. It was to protect himself and others. As a 24-year-old veteran, he may have felt a particular responsibility to do so. We sometimes call such men good samaritans when they intervene to stop a shooter or step between a young woman and a harasser.

If “we” do this, “we” should not. The Good Samaritan didn’t stop the man on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho from being assaulted. He arrived after the fact. Batman and The Shadow are not Good Samaritans. They are vigilantes. That is the term we use for civilians who meet violence with violence, or who use violence preemptively, and there’s a reason the only good ones are found in pulp novels, movies, and comic books. It is a fantasy of a fundamentally immature and selfish kind of person, the kind who is insulated from the peculiar horrors of community.

This was not merely the Journal’s misreading of the story of the Good Samaritan, but a kind of mass hallucination among conservatives. The National Police Association and Ron DeSantis, both of which are as eager as Kenniff to publicly oppose Alvin Bragg, both mentioned the parable, with DeSantis managing to cram in some full-throated anti-semitism, as well:

There is a kind of public bloodthirst on the American right and thus among our right-leaning institutions at the moment. The simmering resentment atop which the scum of conservative politics has for so long floated is beginning to boil. I don’t know what this will ultimately mean and I’m leery of historical comparisons.

My unscientific sense, though, is that a worryingly large part of the general population—not even corrupt or prejudiced officials, but civilians who hold no office or public authority—feels emboldened by the way real, credentialed, powerful authority has begun to ostentatiously defer to murderers. Institutions, both the press and the government, are always more plastic than we think they are; they will bend so that they may countenance every kind of evil so long as they can do so in a way that reinforces their positions. Increasingly, these institutions, from the Times to the Journal to New York City’s elected officials, have become comfortable holding up callous, public murder—of leftist protesters, of homeless people, of prisoners of war—as excusable, not just on the basis of unfortunate extenuating circumstances, but in the name of a kind of hateful reverse morality.

Personally, I find myself too often tempted to meet this kind of crazed violence with equally passionate resistance; to go out looking for the fight that is constantly being threatened. But that’s not what I’ve been told to do by a figure no less central to my religious practice as a Christian than Christ. The job is not to administer the beatings, it’s to tend to the beaten.

SPENCER HERE. I'm in the weeds on other projects and am grateful for Sam for writing this. You'll next see a piece from me, a Nation column I'm still drafting, next week (unless there's a scheduling change), which will look at some of the issues Sam raises here from a different angle.

For now, here are some pieces worth reading.

• Project Maven dissenter and Signal president Meredith Whitaker on the real and not baroque-hypothetical stakes of artificial intelligence.

• Sam Biddle reports for The Intercept about the social-media-scraper firm Dataminr alerting federal law enforcement to abortion-rights demonstrations.

• The National Security Agency's research chief, Gilbert Herrera, seems to be pretending the NSA doesn't already have massive caches of data from the tech firms, but he definitely wants to piggyback on their AI models, in something that sounds reminiscent to me of how PRISM piggybacked on the tech firms' panopticons rather than reinventing the wheel. "He acknowledged that using commercially available AI models risks importing potentially biased algorithms into classified spying missions," paraphrases Bloomberg (I used a different link to get around the Bloomberg paywall).