The Eroding Right to Self-Defense

Subways do not exist to be substitute institutions for those who need institutionalization

As a moral theologian, I am interested in just war theory. Just war theory, which governs whether a country can go to war (jus ad bellum) and what it can do in war (jus in bello), is essentially a nation’s right to self-defense. That’s why I reject the arguments that claim either that just war theory is obsolete in modern times or that the Christian’s default position should be one of pacifism.

Self-defense is a right, for individuals and for nations. No one has a moral obligation to be the subject of aggression or to endure it passively. You have a right not to die.

Opponents of just war theory usually go on about how “war has changed” or “how defining the conditions that justify resort to force is difficult.” I agree. When you have countries that engage in liminally warlike activities — like cyber-targeting of critical infrastructure — you have to recognize that demarcating the line where aggression begins may be changing.

That still doesn’t take away your right to self-defense.

What’s happening on a macroscale — war — is also happening on a microscale: crime.

On May 1 Jordan Neely, a homeless man, boarded a subway train in Manhattan and began acting and speaking erratically. An ex-Marine restrained him with a headlock. He later died.

Much of the mass media has focused on stoking the racial (Neely was black) and homeless aspects of the case. Not surprisingly, they downplayed or ignored Neely’s extended criminal record, including his outstanding warrant for assault.

Did the Marine act in self-defense of himself and/or his fellow passengers? One would hope that an impartial investigation would establish that fact. Given, however, the other agendas being stoked in this case, one can also entertain a healthy suspicion about prosecutorial motives.

Let’s remember some facts about the situation that are essential to self-defense. The passengers were in an enclosed and confined space. And they had a right to be there. I want to emphasize that last point: they had a right to be there.

It is dishonest to redefine the purpose of public facilities. Subway trains exist to move fare-paying passengers from point A to point B. That is what subways are for. Subways do not exist to be temporary lodging or sleeping facilities for the homeless. They do not exist to be substitute institutions for those who need institutionalization. When we forget those basic facts, we start making excuses.

I recall a similar situation when I was a graduate student at Fordham in the early 1980s. I had to go through the Port Authority Bus Terminal on 42nd Street to get back to my home in New Jersey. Port Authority in the early 1980s was not a welcoming place because it was full of various asocial denizens, from criminals to the homeless. One could never get a seat, for example, to wait for a bus because Port Authority served as a flop house. Eventually, somebody who apparently visited a medieval European cathedral came up with the interim “solution” of replacing benches with the kinds of swing seats that propped up monks during long hours in choir (provided they kept their knees firm). Relax or snooze off and the misericord unceremoniously dumped you on the ground. What really fixed Port Authority, however, was a new administration that got the novel idea that a bus terminal is a commuter facility, not a flop house, and showed the ticketless the door.

No doubt a certain view would maintain my approach is not “Christian” and is “heartless.” I challenge, even reject that characterization: Christianity does not mean gullibility that perpetuates dysfunction.

Port Authority is a commuter facility and a subway exists to move people. Period.

“But where will the homeless go?”

When a taxpayer looks at his most recent paycheck, and particularly the component he earned but will not see because Uncle Sam (and Aunt Kathy Hochul) saw and took it first, I have to say: “I think I made my contribution. And, in return, I expect a safe subway.”

No doubt, some Catholics will cite back to me one of my favorite works of literature, Dickens’s “Christmas Carol,” where Ebenezer Scrooge bewails having “to support establishments” like the poor house and treadmill. I don’t accept the comparison. Scrooge’s Victorian England lacked a social safety net; our social welfare state is overgrown. The amount of money the average American pays in support of the social welfare state typically exceeds a quarter of his earnings. That the state is dysfunctional justifies neither demanding more of the taxpayer nor expecting him to deal on his own with the social consequences of its dysfunction.

Did New York fail Jordan Neely? Yes.

Did New York fail the travelers aboard a northbound F train in Manhattan on May 1? Yes.

The ways New York failed Jordan Neely are many and complex. The way New York failed those travelers was simple: it locked them between stations in a train with a man at least some of them perceived as a threat.

Articulating his theory of the state, Thomas Hobbes argued that each person relentlessly pursues his own interest. Left unchecked by a sovereign, these individuals going after their own interests would lead to one strongman surviving and lots of dead people, because “man is a wolf to his fellow man” (homo homini lupus). People therefore surrender a measure of their freedom to a sovereign, says Hobbes, to ensure there is not one strongman and many dead but that each can go his own way safely.

As a Catholic theologian and philosopher, I’d give you lots of reasons to reject Hobbesian social contractarianism. But one can learn something even from one’s opponents.

Hobbes had a relatively dark vision of his fellow man, probably partly due to the extreme Protestantism that dominated the England of his day (Calvinistic utter depravity, although Hobbes was an atheist), partly due to his being on the losing end of the English Civil War.

But his was at least more realistic — taking into account human sinfulness — than modern naïve optimism. Reading New York Times commentators on the event, I was told one could have “engaged” Neely in a conversation, asked him if he’d taken his prescriptions that day, etc.

Pardon me, but being mental health therapist to somebody off his meds is not part of a subway rider’s job description. And I have no doubt that, had Neely bludgeoned such a Pollyanna, no one would be protesting in front of the DA’s office, on social media, or in Congress demanding Neely’s head.

The modern welfare state, in its deinstitutionalization and non-prosecution policies, its commissions and omissions, created the Hobbesian microcosm of homo homini lupus on that subway train, forcing those passengers into what at least arguably was an ambiguous situation of self-defense, and now wants to pin blame on an ex-Marine.

You have a right to self-defense and a right to be on a subway train.

I’m neither blaming Jordan Neely nor the ex-Marine. I am blaming the institutions of government — city, state, and federal — whose policies played a role shaping what happened on that train.

If the sovereign wants people to be less afraid and, therefore, perhaps more tempered in what they think they must do in self-protection, then do your job and defend them before they think it’s a do-it-yourself job.


John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) was former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are exclusively his.

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