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Jenn MorsonMay 09, 2023
New York police officers gather on the platform at a New York City subway stop after Jordan Neely was placed in a headlock by a fellow rider on a subway train on May 1, according to police officials and video of the encounter. Mr. Neely died of his injuries. (Paul Martinka via AP)New York police officers respond at a New York City subway stop after Jordan Neely was placed in a headlock by a fellow rider on a subway train on May 1, according to police officials and video of the encounter. Mr. Neely died of his injuries. (Paul Martinka via AP)

I had a public breakdown once. It was August 1999, and I had just gotten off a bus from Wisconsin, where I had attended the funeral of a college friend. He died too young, leaving behind my college roommate and their sweet young babies, and I had about all of the loss I could handle since my father’s death the year before. With no money to my name, no loved ones in sight, and no sleep in the week leading up to this moment in the Pittsburgh Greyhound station, I fell apart.

I approached the ticket counter, perhaps not making much sense as I tried to explain my predicament through the plexiglass divider to the Greyhound employee, and eventually my sobs overcame me and I pounded my fists on the counter.

I screamed at the attendant, “Why won’t you help me?” What I meant was “Why does everyone die?” I was in crisis. Those few moments play in my mind like a movie: a scene that I saw from the outside, without having any control in the moment. My movements, my exclamations were not my own. The kindly attendant ushered me into a side room and gave me a cup of water. I probably appeared insane, and to be fair, in those moments, I absolutely was. I had a break with reality. But I was given space to calm down and call a friend, who drove the 45 minutes from Steubenville, Ohio, to get me.

It’s fairly clear from the horrific video of Mr. Neely’s death that killing him was not necessary and not done in any form of self-defense or defense of others.

My friend and I had both graduated from Franciscan University of Steubenville. As part of my minor in human life studies, I took several classes with Rita Marker. Mrs. Marker was a tough but brilliant professor who required us to memorize many statements verbatim. Each word had to be in its right place, she told us, otherwise it was an automatic fail. One such phrase: All social engineering is preceded by verbal engineering.

I cannot find the origin of this phrase. Perhaps it was Mrs. Marker’s own. But recent events have it ringing in my ears like an alarm. The first instance was a press release from the governor of Texas, Greg Abbott. Governor Abbott, who is Catholic, identified five victims of a mass shooter in April as “illegal immigrants.” Highlighting the victims’ legal status was completely unnecessary and only served to suggest that they were partly responsible for what happened to them, as if they would be alive had they not come here. It also turns out that Mr. Abbott was at least incorrect in one case, and the widower of the victim provided legal documentation in a heartbreaking attempt to humanize his wife in the eyes of the governor. (The governor’s office did later attempt to walk back the statement.)

Then, last week, a young man, Jordan Neely, a familiar face on the New York City subway where he often busked as a Michael Jackson impersonator, had a moment not unlike mine in that bus station. He was hungry. He was upset. He shouted at his fellow passengers, and from what eyewitnesses have shared, some of these exclamations included hints of violence and self-harm. And then he was tackled by a former Marine and pinned in a chokehold. Two other passengers helped hold him down, and Neely was restrained for seven minutes. On a video of the incident, someone says to flip him over so he doesn’t choke on his own blood. According to the medical examiner, Jordan Neely died from a “compression of [the] neck.”

Reports of Mr. Neely’s past behavior have seeped into the public conversation, and it’s clear that a life of tragedy exacerbated his mental health struggles. There’s no question that he behaved in frightening ways at times, and that people sometimes felt unsafe in his presence. It’s also fairly clear from the horrific video of his death that killing him was not necessary and not done in any form of self-defense or defense of others.

A popular rightwing pundit, also a Catholic, Matt Walsh, immediately declared the man who took Mr. Neely’s life a hero. Mr. Walsh tweeted, “The Left fills our cities with violent dirtbags, dares you to take any step to defend yourself and your community, and then promptly ruins your life for it. These people are truly wicked. I mean pure evil. That’s what we’re dealing with.”

By this line of thinking, Jordan Neely wasn’t as human and therefore disposable. It is the same reasoning that says “illegal immigrants” are less human.

The vitriolic tweet is Mr. Walsh’s preferred mode of communication, and he is not merely shouting into the void. He has 1.8 million followers on Twitter, a successful career at The Daily Wire, and 2.4 million subscribers to his YouTube channel. Words like “insane, pure evil, vagrant, violent dirtbags,” pepper his commentary about Mr. Neely, while “brave” and “hero” are the descriptors of the man who took the law into his own hands and ended Jordan Neely’s life.

By this line of thinking, Jordan Neely wasn’t as human and therefore disposable. It is the same reasoning that says “illegal immigrants” are less human, less deserving, because others had the good fortune to be born American. And it is the same reasoning that leads Mr. Walsh to refer to drag queens as “garbage” and “scum.” Instead of seeking common ground and understanding with other human beings, too many follow the temptation to describe others as less than human, as literal refuse and evil. This makes violence against them far more palatable.

As Mrs. Marker might have said, this is verbal engineering as a precursor to social engineering. Instead of seeing Christ in each and every human being, we can see people with whom we disagree as not fully human. They are “pure evil,” “demons,” and their souls are dead. It’s far easier to justify taking another person’s life when you don’t believe they are as human as you are. It’s much easier to ignore our responsibilities to our neighbor if we view them as less deserving of human rights.

I don’t know what the young man who put Mr. Neely in a chokehold was thinking. It’s more than possible he only intended to subdue Mr. Neely, who was scaring subway riders. Perhaps he’s now living in an unimaginable hell where he has to face what he’s done. We can’t know what is in his head, but those praising his actions are speaking contrary to the Gospel and to everything those who wish for a just society desire.

May the soul of Jordan Neely rest in peace, and may perpetual light shine upon him.

[Read next: “Bishop Flores: Texas car crash that killed 7 migrants part of ‘corrosive tendency’ to devalue vulnerable human life”]

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