Subway Vigilantism (2023 Jun)

by Barry A. Liebling

Recently a tragic event occurred in New York City. A deranged homeless man was taking a tantrum and threatening people on a Manhattan subway. Reportedly, the man did not actually touch any of the passengers on the train, but his actions signaled to passengers in the car that he was very close to committing physical assaults. A military veteran stepped in and restrained the frightening individual in a headlock. The veteran was assisted by two other riders. Unfortunately, the disturbed man lost consciousness and died after the veteran released him.

The entire incident is terrible. I assume that the intention of the military man was to subdue, not to kill. Still, the outcome of the intervention is unfortunate.

There are two opposing schools of thought regarding the subway episode. The loudest group is composed of leftist progressives. They condemn the veteran as a vigilante, who took the law into his own hands and attacked a man who was obviously “mentally ill.” To the leftist elite all sympathy goes to the menacing individual who terrified subway passengers, and the man that intervened to protect riders who were on the train is condemned for violating woke sensibilities. Consistent with his vile past behavior, the hard-leftist New York District Attorney has arrested the ex-marine and charged him with manslaughter.

Of course, not everyone is on board with the woke interpretation of the events. A sizable segment of citizens correctly understand what happened. They regard the military man as a hero, who prevented an uncomfortable situation from escalating into something where harm would come to innocent people.

Consider the background and context of the story. I have lived in Manhattan for more than 50 years and frequently travel on the subways. There has always been crime on the subways, and I have seen crazy people acting out many times. But since 2020 the frequency of subway assaults, robberies, and even murders by berserkers has ballooned alarmingly. Now it is very common to witness menacing people displaying their malice on the subways. Most of the time nothing happens, but sometimes (more than ever before, and it continues to increase) the lunatic attacks.

The woke elite demands that people remain passive. If you detect danger on the subway, call the police for help. The police may arrive in time to prevent serious trouble (probably will not), but as an ordinary citizen your duty is to sit tight and wait for assistance. Fighting back or intervening to stop the dangerous threat is (gasp!) vigilantism – taking the law into your own hands. Note well, that one of the cornerstones of woke dogma is that the government and leftist intellectuals (not ordinary individuals) should make all important decisions about your life. Acting to protect yourself using your own judgment is blasphemous.

Note also that the wokesters are completely wrong. Every human being has the right to self-defense. If you are attacked or threatened with violence, you ought to do what you can to protect yourself. Blatant felons must be stopped.

Why is violent crime (which is never acceptable) on the rise? Two major factors are contributing. First, the probability of getting caught and punished has markedly gone down. In New York City brazen shoplifting, random robberies, and unprovoked physical attacks is sharply up, and the risk to the perpetrators of paying a price for their crimes is minimal.

But the reduced risk of getting caught is not the main driver of the problem. Instead, there has been a significant shift in social norms. More people than ever (it is impossible to quantify) believe it is acceptable to engage in criminal behavior – providing you claim membership to the right identity groups. If you want something in a store, take it. The store is owned by rich people, and it has insurance to cover its losses. If you see someone you do not like, attack if you can. According to woke dogma the world is comprised of oppressed and oppressors. Any oppressor (straight white males are the worst) that is assaulted by someone who is regarded as oppressed (not straight, not white) had it coming and has no justification to complain. And a corollary of this principle is that an oppressor has no right to interfere with the behavior of the oppressed. It has not escaped observers’ notice that the crazy man on the subway was black, while the military man was white. If the ethnicities were reversed the story would not have been as newsworthy.

What is the real solution to the problem of vigilantism and crime? Go back to the causal factors. The government’s job is to protect citizens from bad actors. Vigilantes exist to the extent that the police and the courts are not performing properly. The message has to go out that criminal behavior will be met by swift apprehension, and dangerous actors have to be removed from the streets and the subways. A diagnosis of “mental illness” cannot be deemed an acceptable excuse that frees the perpetrator to roam freely and assault innocent people.

More important, there has to be a shift in norms. More people have to be convinced that acting ethically is essential. All individuals have the same natural rights. And it is morally wrong to violate anyone’s natural rights. This means that it is not acceptable to initiate force or fraud against any other person. The whole notion of “identity groups” should be expunged. Whether or not police are around, crimes including unprovoked assaults, thievery, and vandalism are never acceptable. Good people already understand this and live properly. We have to educate and persuade more people to realize this.

*** See other entries at in “Monthly Columns.” ***

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