Daniel Penny wasn't a vigilante
June 1, 2023
Pretty much everything you need to know about the Daniel Penny case you can learn from the "Death Wish" movies.
Or so you might conclude if you took seriously the left's analysis of the tragic incident in a New York City subway car last month that led to Penny, a former Marine, getting charged with second-degree manslaughter.
The upshot of this commentary is that conservatives favor "vigilantism" and support it, of course, because it's a bulwark of white supremacy.
"The Republican Embrace of Vigilantism Is No Accident," according to New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie.
Greg Sargent and Paul Waldman rapped Ron DeSantis in The Washington Post for his support of Penny: "DeSantis's celebration of vigilantism is a new low in MAGA extremism."
"Daniel Penny shows how much the right loves white vigilante violence," averred the headline on a piece at the Public Notice Substack.
Jon Marshall, an associate professor at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, was quoted in another Washington Post piece, "What we're seeing now for Daniel Penny after he killed Jordan Neely is that he fits within a long, ugly history of some media and politicians glorifying vigilante violence."
There are many problems with this line of argumentation, beginning with the fact that Daniel Penny wasn't a vigilante.
Merriam-Webster defines a vigilante as "a member of a volunteer committee organized to suppress and punish crime summarily (as when the processes of law are viewed as inadequate)."
There can be loner vigilantes, of course. If, say, someone Penny cared about was harmed by a mentally ill homeless man, and he started riding the subways looking for mentally ill homeless men like Neely to take vengeance on, that'd be vigilantism.
This is a version of the scenario that set the Charles Bronson character Paul Kersey on his path of blowing away New York City's muggers and lowlifes in the series of movies.
By contrast, conservatives are, as a general matter, viewing Penny as a defender of himself and, most importantly, those around him -- not an avenging angel administering the justice that Alvin Bragg refuses to.
Indications are that Penny (and his fellow passengers) sincerely believed Jordan Neely, suffering from untreated mental illness, was a threat to people on the train. There's still much we need to know about the particulars of the case, but the impulse to protect others is deeply admirable and rare.
Most people intuit this, and presumably even more so if they have ever been in the confined space of a subway car, with the cops nowhere to be found and everyone else looking at their shoes, with someone acting aggressively or irrationally.
What progressives are doing is taking praise for someone who stepped up in a difficult circumstance and twisting it into something perverse, dangerous and racist.
The fevered theorizing is quite impressive, even by today's standards. According to the Public Notice piece: "Conservatives are desperate to preserve the privilege of white violence, which is why the defenses of Penny sound so rabid and so unhinged. For conservatives, a world in which white men are held accountable for racist murder is a world without law, without order."
Despite the effort to enlist Daniel Penny in the Klan, there's no indication that he was motivated by racial animus and no reason to believe that he would have acted differently if confronted with a mentally ill person of another race acting menacingly.
Of course, if Penny had reacted the same way countering a perceived threat from a white man, the tragic event would be a blip; it's the catnip of a purported racial incident and the opportunity to put Penny, with no justification, in the company of long-ago racists acting extralegally to intimidate and kill Black people that makes the case irresistible for progressives.
Penny's appointed role is to be an archetype, the "white vigilante," with no room for nuance or complication -- or even an accurate definition of vigilantism.
Rich Lowry is editor of the National Review.