Time to Demand Public Safety

Each of us, including Christians, has a right to be free from bodily harm

I grasped my keys in my coat pocket. Good thing I bought a Honda: their ignition key is nice and long. Among moves that I learned in self-defense was that keys held between one’s index and middle finger can be effectively jabbed into somebody’s eyes, usually long enough to stop him and for you to get out of there. One can, of course, extend the moment with an appropriately situated kick or stomp. I figure, since it’s the “holiday season,” my possible target could find a soprano lead in Handel’s Messiah.

These ideas flooded my mind Tuesday morning in Washington as I sat in Metro Center, changing from one subway line to another. A clearly crazy man was walking the platform, sparring with an imaginary opponent with whom he was arguing. Except that, while he saw the opponent of his imagination, he didn’t see real people in his path, so he shoved a fifty-something lady aside (happily away from the tracks) as he made his way down the platform. I hoped he’d continue up the stairs, but he turned around and continued back down the platform, happily past me, and disappeared into the other hall of the station.

I was not going to get on a closed train with that maniac, nor was I going to put up with becoming a victim of Washington’s inability to take lunatics off the street. I’m six-foot but the guy was taller than me. I’m also 250 pounds, which gives me some advantage, though depending on what drug the guy might have been on, that’s debatable. Hence my resolution to give him a higher role in the choir.

It’s time Americans say “Enough!”

Perhaps some readers are scandalized that a moral theologian might write about how he’d try to stop a “poor, mentally incompetent man.” Well, this moral theologian has a right to live and a right to safely get to his destination at 8:00 AM. And too many “Catholic” types babble about “concern for the other” without speaking clearly and unambiguously about the first principle: that I have a right to be free from bodily harm.

As with just war theory, Catholics seem to think that passivity and pacifism are the “proper” Christian response. They are not. You have a right to be safe. You have a right to defend yourself. You have a right to use proportionate force to disable an attack.

It’s time we started talking clearly in these terms.

Please don’t tell me about his “mental” instability. A just society, i.e., one that serves the common good, does not release potentially violent mental cases on the street and expect its normal citizens to cope with the challenge. Don’t lecture me about “accompanying” him, since there were no Swiss Guards around me this morning to accompany me. Don’t tell me about the “peripheries,” because a primary subway transfer point is not a periphery and should not be a dwelling place for mentally ill folks.

I remember quite well the early 1980s when, as a graduate student at Fordham in New York, I had to take the bus home through Port Authority Bus Terminal in Manhattan. Another “compassionate” and “caring” administration had turned PA into a “warm shelter” for the crazies of Times Square. You weren’t supposed to criticize this “response,” even though you could not find a place to sit down because benches had been turned into flop sites.

Finally, we got a change of leadership that decided that a bus terminal is not a flop house, not a homeless shelter, not a halfway house for the mentally ill. It is a transportation hub to move people in and out. Period. And, adopting that perspective, PA got cleaned out — and made safe and useable.

“But,” you say, “all that means is the problem was pushed out of sight.” Perhaps. But it was not just “out of sight.” It was out of a direct threat to commuters whose sole aim was to use the facility to get somewhere. They should not have to navigate the consequences of our failed social systems.

I don’t care about the “equity” of those we are arresting or detaining; if they did the crime, they should do the time, regardless of their “protected characteristics.” I had no intention this morning of balancing “equity” stats by being a white male victim. Sorry if that disappoints the heralds of “restorative justice.”

We desperately need to recover a sense of social “normalcy,” eschewing another manifestation of the dictatorship of relativism: that every bizarre and potentially dangerous person is exercising just another “choice” of which we should be “tolerant” and “welcoming” alongside a subway track. We need to stop designing social policies around the “marginalized” at the expense of the normal and law-abiding. That is not an esoteric demand, and it is not “unchristian.”

Earlier this year, I wrote [here] about the phenomenon of fare-beating, of jumping turnstiles without paying fares (even though most kids in Washington can get reduced or free farecards). It’s part of what’s called the “broken window phenomenon”: when destructive behavior is tolerated, it soon prevails and becomes normative, dumbing down norms (including moral norms).

The Washington DC City Council indulges this kind of behavior for all the usual excuses. The Washington Metropolitan Area Transportation Authority (WMATA), which is losing money to this wokeness, has begun changing fare gates; in lieu of turnstiles, we now have plastic gates that extend about five feet from the ground and make leaping almost impossible. (Of course, as I exited Union Station this morning, three teens heading into the station were saying, “You scan the card then I’ll grab it and we go through.”)

The gate changes are not unlike what happened in Port Authority forty years ago. Because people were flopping down on benches in the bus terminal, the “obvious” solution was… remove the benches! (Why might passengers waiting for delayed buses want them?) In place of benches, we got an equivalent of the “mercy seats” of medieval cathedrals, i.e., swinging seats that will hold you up as long as your legs remain firmly placed on the floor in front of you to provide resistance. If you fell asleep—as tired medieval monks or modern sleepers in bus terminals learned—your knees would buckle, the seat would tip and you would be unceremoniously dumped on the ground. The social expectation that seats be used for sitting would, of course, be “discriminatory,” maybe even “judgmental.”

Those plastic gates, of course, are something of Kabuki theater. Among the first places they were installed were Capitol South and Union Station, two stations adjacent to Capitol Hill — two stations most of whose users are not typically fare jumpers. (Given the average age of our Senators and Congressmen, none of them would be “legislators-a-leapin’” over those gates). It might make the legislators who help fill in WMATA’s budget think they’re doing something.

Let’s demand accountability.


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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