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The right-wing movement surrounding Daniel Penny is barbaric

Republicans and right-wing pundits see vigilante brutality as something to champion.

Republican presidential hopeful Nikki Haley on Tuesday called on New York Gov. Kathy Hochul to pardon Daniel Penny, the Marine veteran charged with second-degree manslaughter for killing Jordan Neely, a mentally ill man, on the New York City subway with a chokehold in May. 

Haley made the remarks in an interview on Fox News, saying it would help the city deal with crime. “Criminals will continue to rule the streets of New York, because they will know that there’s no accountability for anyone who tries to stop them,” she said. “And if she pardons him, that sets a right on a lot of things — it’ll put criminals on notice. And it’ll let people like Penny who really were very brave in that instance, it will let them know that we’ve got their back.”

Penny is being swept up into a broader right-wing narrative that valorizes vigilante extrajudicial killing as a noble pursuit.

Shocking as that rationale sounds, Haley’s position isn’t an outlier. There’s a growing movement of right-wing politicians, activists and pundits staking out an extreme position in ardent support of Penny. They don’t just defend his actions but glorify them as heroic. They don't see tragedy in the needless death of Neely, but a potentially exciting model for dealing with social problems.

As we saw with Kenosha vigilante Kyle Rittenhouse, Penny is being swept up into a broader right-wing narrative that valorizes vigilante extrajudicial killing as a noble pursuit. It underscores the hollowness of the American right’s claim to favor “law and order”; what it really favors is upholding a certain kind of order by any means.

Haley isn’t the only 2024 contender who has signaled support for Penny. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis tweeted a link to a crowdfunding page set up by Penny’s lawyers, wrote that it’s imperative to “take back the streets for law abiding citizens” and called for support to show him that “America’s got his back.” Former biotech executive Vivek Ramaswamy sent $10,000 to the fundraiser, which has raised over $2.5 million. (Donors to that fundraiser have left comments like “No tears for the [man] who died….” and “take back our country from these villains bent on destroying our nation.”) Former President Donald Trump said that he didn’t want to make a “definitive statement” but that “I think he [Penny] was in danger,” adding: “And it sounded like the other people in the car were in danger. And it also looks like this man [who was killed] was arrested over 40 times and had lots of problems.” 

The list of right-wing VIPs celebrating Penny goes on and on. Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., deemed him a “Subway Superman.” Rep Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., called him a “hero.” One America News asked readers whether Penny should be honored. This isn’t just about the MAGA corners of the right: The Wall Street Journal ran an editorial defending Penny as “the Subway Samaritan.” Twitter CEO Elon Musk liked a tweet calling Neely, the victim, “worthless,” as well as a tweet poll circulating on the right asking whether Neely was murdered or “had it coming” (the overwhelming majority believed the latter). 

This rhetoric is so extreme it can be easy to forget that what happened was a gratuitous act of violence against a person who appeared mentally unwell and homeless. Reporting about the incident indicates that Neely appeared to be experiencing acute mental distress on the subway. “I don’t have food, I don’t have a drink, I’m fed up,” he reportedly yelled. “I don’t mind going to jail and getting life in prison. I’m ready to die.” Reporting and an eyewitness statement relayed by the police indicates that he directed threatening language at passengers. It’s not hard to see how Neely created a situation that made passengers nervous. But no reporting indicates that Neely showed signs he was going to physically harm anyone before Penny used physical force against him. 

Penny’s actions were both an escalation and a strikingly aggressive use of force. According to reports, he didn’t bargain with Neely or issue a warning. He struck from behind. He placed Neely in a chokehold, a restraining position which aims to restrict blood flow or air flow and can easily be lethal — something a Marine, in particular, ought to know. According to at least one eyewitness account, Neely used the chokehold for an astonishing 15 minutes. But even if that’s contestable, what’s not, as video and reporting indicate, is that he used the chokehold for minutes well after the subway train had stopped, authorities were on their way, he had the aid of at least two other men, and the car had emptied of other passengers. It is plausible that Penny didn’t want or expect to kill Neely, but it’s evident that he didn’t use force reasonably or in a manner that was remotely commensurate with the perceived threat.

The most charitable reading of Penny’s behavior is that he acted recklessly and disproportionately based on genuine fear with no ill intent and caused a terrible tragedy. But the emerging pro-Penny movement doesn’t reflect that. Its adherents think he did the right thing. And implicitly (and sometimes explicitly), they believe that Neely had forfeited his right to live because he was an avatar of social disorder, a threat to a certain vision of American life and tidiness. 

One can’t help but note the pro-Penny movement’s selective attitude toward the law. Many of its members think that it’s an injustice that Penny is being subjected to legal scrutiny for killing a man. But they think that emboldening people like him to act as citizen cops — and administer force brutally and with impunity — is the best way to keep America lawful. In other words, this isn’t about law. It’s strongman politics, one act of domination at a time.