The Killing of Jordan Neely and the Virtual Lynch Mob
Part of me worries that the vilest reactions are magnified in my mind because I spend time on Twitter, which the majority of people do not. The other part of me understands that if I walked into any bar in a 50 mile radius and asked about this story, the few people who have even heard of it would say exactly what I'm seeing on Twitter.
I agree with every word here.
In the very white small town where I grew up in the 1980s, it would not have been surprising to hear essentially this same deplorable sentiment between adults in private—that Neely had it coming, or his life was of no consequence, or even that his erasure by Penny was somehow an act of public service. In fact I actually did overhear essentially the same things after Bernard Goetz shot four black teens on the NY subway in 1984, just to name one incident (definitely not the only time I heard these kinds of things).
I'm very struck by your invocation of "the banality of evil" here because it is so on point, exactly the right phrase to describe this armchair lynch mob. And this deep moral rot as you call it does feel like something new, although I struggle to identify exactly what makes it different from whatever was behind identical sentiments expressed years ago.
I do think it's partly that "sentiments that were once made shameful are now being openly expressed in public." Yes, people used to say these things only in private, but now they just say the quiet part out loud. On the other hand, people just say everything out loud all the time in this social media era.
Or maybe this moral rot is the same as ever, but we are a few more decades into this conversation now, and it feels like we have had time to become better than this.
I disagree we are in a new era of sociopathic behavior- this behavior has been around as long as social groups have existed. As Carl Jung pointed out, we all carry a "shadow" personality that contains and screens off socially unacceptable aspects of our personality, including the facets that we fear/hate in ourselves.
Plenty of folks have pointed out that social media = wearing a mask emboldening people to express sociopathic statements like "he deserved it" etc. The lesser known social evil: that beginning in the 1970's under the guise of "freeing the inmates" (in fact budget-cutting), state mental hospitals were shut down. -coincidentally socially promoted by the movie "One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest".
And where did these people end up? On the streets. When you encounter or hear a deranged person shouting or talking nonsense to themselves, these are the folks once "locked up." My mother was a psychologist who worked in a public mental health clinic. She explained the connection between homelessness and mental illness, and I didn't truly believe it until a college classmate corroborated this phenomena in the course of class research into state archives- he discovered plenty of primary-source documentation that proved my mother correct. I am *Not* suggesting homelessness equals mental illness, only that the homeless who suffer it would be safer in a state mental hospital. Ideal? No, but better than being strangled by a vigilante.
This is a terrific post. Thanks!
The reaction to the killing is one of the most disturbing things I've seen the past few years, arguably worse than George Floyd's murder, not least because the moral rot is spread much farther than the typical right wing fringe. I don't know how much further, and Twitter definitely amplifies the worst/most outrageous voices, but there are a lot of normies who just want "clean, safe" streets and don't particularly care who gets removed or how.
Very good post. I wonder if this deep rot exposed by this killing is, in fact, anything new. What would have happened to Neely in the past? When was there an era where he would have been well treated or even better treated? I’d suggest this rot has long been apart of American society. The great American struggle has been to expose and remove it.
Re: "sentiments that were once made shameful are now being openly expressed in public", though, remember Bernard Goetz in 1984. Per Wiki, "According to Canty, he said, "Can I have $5?" According to Goetz, Canty said, "Give me five dollars" in a "normal tone" of voice. Goetz subsequently pulled a handgun and fired five shots at the four, wounding them all. Cabey's spine was severed, resulting in brain damage and partial paralysis." & Goetz was celebrated by many...
The impulse to push his past as a Michael Jackson impersonator is particularly interesting here imo. We saw similar mockery after Trayvon Martin's death and led to the "Black Lives Matter" response. There's a strong critique that demanding acknowledgment of our humanity is the lowest possible ask however the vituperative response to even that is always striking. Either way in this bid to appeal to white liberals there's an initial shallow support that as you said falls apart under slight pressure and a bit of a diversion from more radical systemic demands which could be articulated.
Celebrating vigilantism seems to have a primal pull (Hollywood would be bust without it) but usually one’s conscience is soothed because the victim somehow deserved it (terrorist, domestic abuser, etc.). In this case, though, Neely did nothing but annoy other people. I think some of the reactions John is talking about are not just cruel or racist, they’re flat-out murder fantasies. Penny did what they fantacize about, and, as discussed in the piece, we now live in a world where expressing that fantasy is “just another thing on the internet”.
I know it is reductive AF, but for the past few years I've been convinced that the most important binary in politics is between those who see killing in self defense as an actual moral good, and those who see it as a forgivable heinous act.
EDIT: I'm aware that this particular killing was NOT committed in self defense, and did not mean to imply that it was . I just think that the kind of person who thinks killing in self defense is a moral good is the same kind of person who does not question the use of lethal force on any stranger they deem "threatening".
Thank you, this really expressed something I had been feeling: I thought that I had lost the ability to be shocked, but beyond my horror at his death I found the spectacle the discourse has made Neely's killing into disgusting. Even though I like to think of myself as a materialist, the juxtaposition with the mass murder(s) in Texas really does feel like a spiritual sickness in the land.
Well said, John.
And yes, there’s a lot of moral rot. It’s unaddressed; like global warming, every day without meaningful mitigation, isn’t just a delay but allows the problems to worsen.
I share the serious concern over treating certain people as so worthless or irredeemable that killing them is no longer criminal, or even an active good.
I don’t know about NYC, but in the Bay Area I think many people have personal experiences - not media-hyped ones - that mean they can vividly imagine a situation that would be terrifying. I certainly can - I’ve had to skirt a wide margin around people acting violently on the street in SF, and if that happened on a train I would be scared, though probably not for my life. But it’s not clear to me yet whether the situation on the train before Penny made physical contact with Neely WAS like that. I don’t think those people actually endorse killing him, but their seeming lack of concern may be a product of filling in the blanks in this story in one particular way.
On the other side, I read some of the stories about Neely’s past as a performer and dancer (and the ones I read also discussed his history of violence) not as an attempt to sentimentalize him or implying that it was those things that made his killing unjust, but simply to report on what he was like a person, what he meant to people who knew him, and what was lost when he died. Something is lost when anyone dies, but there’s nothing wrong with saying what that was. Probably some of them did rise to sentimental or infantilizing, but not the ones I read.
As I say, my biggest concern is the creeping acceptance of deadly violence as a way to deal with the compound problems of homelessness, untreated severe mental health problems, and addiction, in the absence of an effective state response. I’m not sure to what extent other people base their belief that this is a serious problem on hyped media coverage, but my belief is based on personal experience. I don’t wish for the encampments, psychotic behavior in public, rampant petty crime, and open drug use to vanish “by any means necessary”, but I do think they’re a serious problem that we should consider an unacceptable failure of government.
It's been frightening to find out how many crimes people think are legitimately punishable by death.
The cruelty is derived from the precarious lives Americans live relative to other developed countries. Employment-at-will, the healthcare system, pervasive scams of consumers, crime.
People are angry all of the time, mostly at the wrong things.
It wasn't as bad 50 years ago, even with the legacy of the frontier, slavery and wars.
Today's news is that the DA will submit it to the grand jury for them to make the decision.
How the DA presents the case will determine whether and what charges are made. There are several grades of criminal homicide in NY, with Second degree Manslaughter providing for lenient sentencing. The defendant would have the defenses of self-defense, defense of others, and extreme emotional disturbance, which is interesting and possibly dispositive:
First, the defendant must have had . . . an emotional disturbance so extreme as to result in andbecome manifest as a profound loss of self-control.
Second, there must have been an explanation or excuse for such extreme emotional disturbance
that was reasonable. The reasonableness of that explanation or excuse must be determined from the viewpoint of a person in the defendant's situation under the circumstances as the defendant believed them to be.
Third, in committing the homicide, the defendant must have acted under the influence of that extreme emotional disturbance.
The other question would be how much of Neely's prior violent conduct would the GJ or a trial jury hear? NY law provides for some exploration of a victim's reputation in cases of self-defense and defense of others.
If the DA wants the case to go away, it can be presented to the GJ in such a way they do not indict.