May 5, 2023 - 10:08pm

The violent incident that occurred in a Manhattan subway earlier this week has already become a heated topic for debate, providing a platform for people on both the Left and the Right to vindicate their various prejudices regarding urban decay, racism, public safety, and more. The event involved Daniel Petty, a 24-year-old straphanger, who was a Marine veteran, taking matters into his own hands and pinning down Jordan Neely, a 30-year-old man with a history of mental health issues who had been acting erratically, in a deadly chokehold.

For those on the Right, this incident can be seen as a clear example of the failure of progressive policies in addressing issues related to homelessness and mental health. They argue that the lack of adequate safety and community resources for the homeless population, such as Neely, is a direct result of laissez-faire liberal policies, which they believe are too lenient and have ultimately led to an increase in crime and instability in our cities. Others, such as Ben Shapiro, have claimed that the right of self-defence — the last defence against violent crime in largely unpoliced settings — is now at risk. Academic Wilfred X. Reilly cited the equally extensive coverage of the non-fatal shooting of Ralph Yarl, who was shot by an 84-year-old white man after ringing the doorbell at the wrong address, as evidence that “race-baiting” explains why this incident has received more attention than “any of the other 500 homicides in NYC in a year.”

By contrast, the Left-leaning Guardian published a glowing piece about the late Neely, highlighting that he was a Michael Jackson impersonator with the affection of all those who knew him — without mentioning that, according to reports, Neely, who had 42 prior arrests, still had a warrant out for his arrest after allegedly hitting a 67-year-old woman in 2021.

While some people on the Left are likely to argue that this incident highlights the need for greater investment in social programmes and mental health resources, they do themselves a disservice by shrugging off the complexity of Neely’s case. This was a man with a violent history who was acting erratically — and aggressively — on the subway. Footage shows the man harassing other passengers before being restrained by Petty, with the help of other riders. It is therefore disingenuous for progressive politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to claim that there was nothing “complicated” about Neely’s death.

In any event, both critiques miss the bigger point: America is, and perhaps always will be, a settler society with higher rates of violence, particularly urban violence, than what is encountered in more homogeneous first-world cities in Western Europe. The sad truth is that this was bound to happen — and will keep happening — in a country with precisely the United States’ particularly violent history. 

The incident on the Manhattan subway is a stark reminder of the very real challenges related to public safety and public health — most perhaps insurmountable — that Americans are required to face together, and all this noisy fighting and signal-boosting will only make that process more difficult.

Oliver Bateman is a historian and journalist based in Pittsburgh. He blogs, vlogs, and podcasts at his Substack, Oliver Bateman Does the Work