Opinion | Making People Uncomfortable Can Now Get You Killed

Increasingly, it is not safe to be in public, to be human, to be fallible. I’m not quoting breathless journalism about rising crime or conservative talking points about America falling into ruin. The ruin I’m thinking of isn’t in San Francisco or Chicago or at the southern border. The ruin is woven into the fabric of America. It’s seeping into all of us. All across the country, supposedly good, upstanding citizens are often fatally enforcing ever-changing, arbitrary and personal norms for how we conduct ourselves.

In Kansas City, Mo., Ralph Yarl, a 16-year-old Black boy, rang the wrong doorbell. He was trying to pick up his younger brothers and was simply on the wrong street, Northeast 115th Street instead of Northeast 115th Terrace, a harmless mistake. Andrew Lester, 84 and white, shot him twice and said, according to Ralph, “Don’t come around here.” Bleeding and injured, Ralph went to three different houses, according to a family member, before those good neighbors in a good, middle-class neighborhood helped him.

In upstate New York, a 20-year-old woman, Kaylin Gillis, was looking for a friend’s house in a rural area. The driver of the car she was in turned into a driveway and the homeowner, Kevin Monahan, 65, is accused of firing twice at the car and killing Ms. Gillis.

In Illinois, William Martys was using a leaf blower in his yard. A neighbor, Ettore Lacchei, allegedly started an argument with Mr. Martys and, police say, killed him.

Two cheerleaders were shot in a Texas parking lot after one, Heather Roth, got into the wrong car. One of her teammates, Payton Washington, was also shot. Both girls survived, with injuries.

In Cleveland, Texas, a father asked his neighbor Francisco Oropesa to stop shooting his gun on his porch because his baby was trying to sleep. Mr. Oropesa walked over to the father’s house and has been charged with killing five people, including an 8-year-old boy, with an AR-15-style rifle. Two of the slain adults were found covering children, who survived.

At a Walgreens in Nashville, Mitarius Boyd suspected that Travonsha Ferguson, who was seven months pregnant, was shoplifting. Instead of calling the police, he followed Ms. Ferguson and her friend into the parking lot and, after one of the women sprayed mace in his face, according to Mr. Boyd, began firing. Ms. Ferguson was rushed to the hospital, where she had an emergency C-section and her baby was born two months early.

And sometimes there is no gun. On Monday, Jordan Neely, a Michael Jackson impersonator experiencing homelessness, was yelling and, according to some riders, acting aggressively on an F train in New York City. “I don’t have food, I don’t have a drink, I’m fed up,” Neely cried out. “I don’t mind going to jail and getting life in prison. I’m ready to die.” Was he making people uncomfortable? I’m sure he was. But his were the words of a man in pain. He did not physically harm anyone. And the consequence for causing discomfort isn’t death unless, of course, it is. A former marine held Mr. Neely in a chokehold for several minutes, killing the man. News reports keep saying Mr. Neely died, which is a passive thing. We die of old age. We die in a car accident. We die from disease. When someone holds us in a chokehold for several minutes, something far worse has occurred.

A man actively brought about Mr. Neely’s death. No one appears to have intervened during those minutes to help Mr. Neely, though two men apparently tried to help the former marine. Did anyone ask the former marine to release Mr. Neely from his chokehold? The people in that subway car prioritized their own discomfort and anxiety over Mr. Neely’s distress. All of the people in that subway car on May 1 will have to live with their apparent inaction and indifference. Now that it’s too late, there are haunting, heartbreaking images of Mr. Neely, helpless and pinned, still being choked. How does something like this happen? How does this senseless, avoidable violence happen? Truly, how? We all need to ask ourselves that question until we come up with an acceptable answer.

In the immediate aftermath, the New York City mayor, Eric Adams, couldn’t set politics aside and acknowledge how horrific Mr. Neely’s death was. Mr. Adams said: “Any loss of life is tragic. There’s a lot we don’t know about what happened here.” His was a bland and impotent statement, even though the sequence of events seems pretty clear and was corroborated by video, photography and a witness. And while any loss is in fact tragic, this specific loss, the death of Jordan Neely, was barely addressed. Mr. Adams didn’t bother to say Mr. Neely’s name and went on to equivocate about his administration’s investments in mental health, a strange claim to make while allowing first responders in New York City to involuntarily commit people experiencing mental health crises.

Each of these innocent people who lost their lives was in the wrong place at the wrong time. In most cases, armed assailants deputized themselves to stand their ground or enforce justice for a petty crime. Some claimed self-defense, said they were afraid, though some of their victims were unarmed women and children. We have to ask the uncomfortable question. Why are men so afraid? Why are they so fragile that they shoot or harm first and ask questions later? Why do they believe death or injury is an appropriate response to human fallibility? Public life shared with terrified and/or entitled and/or angry and/or disaffected men is untenable.

We are at something of an impasse. The list of things that can get you killed in public is expanding every single day. Whether it’s mass shootings or police brutality or random acts of violence, it only takes running into one scared man to have the worst and likely last day of your life. We can’t even agree on right and wrong anymore. Instead of addressing actual problems, like homelessness and displacement, lack of physical and mental health care, food scarcity, poverty, lax gun laws and more, we bury our heads in the sand. Only when this unchecked violence comes to our doorstep do we maybe care enough to try to effect change.

There is no patience for simple mistakes or room for addressing how bigotry colors even the most innocuous interactions. There is no regard for due process. People who deem themselves judge, jury and executioner walk among us, and we have no real way of knowing when they will turn on us.

I will be thinking about Jordan Neely in particular for a long time. I will be thinking about who gets to stand his ground, who doesn’t, and how, all too often, it’s people in the latter group who are buried beneath that ground by those who refuse to cede dominion over it. Every single day there are news stories that are individually devastating and collectively an unequivocal condemnation of what we are becoming: a people without empathy, without any respect for the sanctity of life unless it’s our own.

It’s easy, on social media, to say, “I would have done something to help Mr. Neely.” It’s easy to imagine we would have called for help, offered him some food or money, extended him the grace and empathy we all deserve.

It’s so very easy to think we are good, empathetic people. But time and time again, people like us, who think so highly of themselves, have the opportunity to stand up and do the right thing, and they don’t. What on earth makes us think that, when the time comes, we will be any different?

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