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Clever Cowards

What does sitting idly by do to our character?


Perhaps Daniel Penny will not go to prison. The 24-year-old Marine veteran put the troubled Jordan Neely in a chokehold on New York’s subway last week, joining two other passengers in restraining the erratic derelict. Neely was declared dead at a local hospital, and his death was ruled a homicide. But Penny has not been arrested yet, and a New York Times Sunday feature on the incident is subdued, almost sympathetic to the man we are told was an aspiring bartender. Of course, the Times can’t help spelling certain things out, with its strange honorific capitalization: “Mr. Penny, who is white, was questioned by the police, but has not been charged with a crime for killing Mr. Neely, who was Black.” Protestors have called for Penny’s arrest, but this sad tale may very well become a story national tastemakers agree is simply a tragedy—encapsulating a host of social pathologies, yet not cause for a new summer of unrest and activism with Penny and Neely as dual sacrificial victims. 

Neely’s death does not only, as the New York Times put it, reveal “the deep fault lines in the ways New Yorkers, and Americans beyond, view race, homelessness, crime and how some people seem to be treated differently by the police.” It also illustrates a fault line in virtue, between prudence and courage, particularly for men in contemporary America. Like the Kyle Rittenhouse case, in which a young man engaged in very stupid virtuous behavior and escaped prison because he was extremely lucky throughout, if Penny escapes a sentence he will be another exception that proves the rule. As Peachy Keenan observed, from a “don’t ruin your life” perspective, the smart thing when someone is being violently antisocial in a public space is to do nothing. But what does it mean for the character of the American man, when he trains himself to sit idly by? 


If you live in a major American city and ever take public transit, by now the experience is a familiar one. A person who in a more just country would likely be either incarcerated or institutionalized—Neely had been arrested some forty-two times, including once for punching a 67-year-old woman in the face—has an emotional outburst that seems set to escalate into assault at any moment. Everyone else aboard the train or bus does their best to ignore the disturbance, hoping it will simply go away—for the disturbed person has become part of the urban scenery at this point, a species of weather. We stare at phones, or at shoes, or at the map on the wall, anywhere but where we might make eye contact. Depending on the city, this may happen to you more than once a week.

Character is formed by habit. We are what we repeatedly do. Virtue is performed; the courageous man acts courageously and wisdom is found in the words and deeds of a wise man. In making passivity the smart, default response to disorder and danger, we are forming cities of cowards. Of course, this account of human nature—the language of virtue and habituation and character—has itself been under assault for more than a century, replaced by a pragmatic, calculating sense of smarts. As C.S. Lewis famously wrote in 1943’s The Abolition of Man: “In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst.” Now, in public disorder, this spiritual disorder finds its embodiment, as those who might have done something do nothing, and so make the next call for action that much more difficult to heed. 

Deeply related, and also at issue, is how the country thinks about public spaces and public order more generally. A refrain from those people outraged by Penny and the other passengers’ intervention has been that you and I do not have a right to be comfortable in public spaces. This is a stupid objection on the face of it; taken as stated, the unwell or criminal have no right to be comfortable either, then, and their noise or threats of violence can be met in kind. Of course, what people who say this sort of thing actually mean is that vagrants have a right to do whatever they want—reduced from fellow citizens, whose well-being we should care about, to sacred cows trampling where they will—and you and I do not have a right to expect, let alone demand, public order, that laws be enforced and that the state work in service of the citizenry’s health and flourishing. 

At a certain point, the neglect we see in American cities begins to look less like the unintended consequences of naive idealism and more like policy. In describing this emergent purpose, we might define it by what it seems to reward and punish, or at least what it selects for and against: for passivity against self-government; for cowardice against courage.