A Country Governed by Fear

How America became a violent society

A crowded New York subway station.
Timothy A. Clary / AFP / Getty

Updated at 2:07 p.m. ET on May 4, 2023

The subway is a commons, and every kind of public behavior is visible there. On the train are, inter alia, teenagers listening to music on their phone, babies wailing, hungry people wolfing down sandwiches from fast-food containers, lovers kissing, lovers quarreling, children whirling around poles, adults trying to corral them, panhandlers asking for money, and occasionally very troubled individuals suffering some kind of crisis. Though people in acute psychological distress have always been a part of public life, and despite the fact that there has never been a time or place where people did not have periodic episodes in full view of others, we still have no real etiquette or protocol for meeting a fellow person who is struggling. For evidence of this, look not just to the killing of the Black man strangled by a fellow passenger on a New York City train on Monday, but to the valorization of his killer by cheerleaders online.

The killing, like so many acts of contemporary violence, was filmed. In the video, a 24-year-old man places 30-year-old Jordan Neely in a chokehold on the floor of the subway car. According to witness reports, Neely had been screaming that he had nothing to eat or drink and was ready to die or face life in prison, but he had not physically attacked any fellow travelers. In the chokehold, he kicks and flails and eventually goes limp. Other passengers help the 24-year-old, who has not been officially identified, restrain the man until he lies motionless. They had been afraid, one witness later said in an interview, that Neely might have been armed.

Many people feel uncomfortable when confronted with someone in an acute crisis. But certain factors can turn an uncomfortable situation into an intolerable one, such as living in a society where anybody could have a gun, where any agitation can boil over into mass murder. An irate neighbor slaying five people with an AR-15-style rifle after a noise complaint in Texas; an unstable Coast Guard veteran killing one and injuring four while attending an appointment with his mother in an Atlanta hospital. The stakes in any given episode of public agitation or distress or even psychosis aren’t typically all that high; the majority of people having crises at any time represent no risk to anyone (save, perhaps, themselves), but the incessant rat-a-tat of bloody headlines makes people feel—viscerally—that the risks they do encounter are unbearably dangerous.

In common places, we meet one another with a particular disposition: We try to avoid friction, signal politeness, and keep the flow of society moving. This works well, so long as everyone participates. But we must also be disposed toward people in the world who cannot just get along—because of mental illness, acute emotional distress, or other reasons beyond or within their control—and how ought we meet them? With compassion, perhaps, or with concern, even worry, but tempered with fellow feeling. Fear, however, chases out these finer emotions, and fear is the disposition we’ve grown accustomed to. Presumably it’s the legitimacy of this fear that persuaded law enforcement to release the 24-year-old killer with no charges so far.

This process, through which mundane uncomfortable situations are transformed into terrifying ordeals by all the incidents of random gun violence that came before, is one means by which a healthy community becomes a violent society. Nobody looks forward to encountering people behaving erratically on the subway, and neither does anyone want to fall victim to an act of stochastic violence, but killing a mentally ill man on a train doesn’t represent much of an improvement upon either circumstance. It represents the loss of a peaceful commons, the absence of compassion, and the overwhelming fear we have come to accept in our culture of violence. This is the country we have become.