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After Subway Death, NYC Residents Debate 'Bystanderism'

As Jordan Neely struggled to free himself from a chokehold in the New York City subway earlier this month, some passengers helped pin him down and others who watched. Two men helped restrain Neely while Daniel Penny, an ex-Marine, held him on the floor of a train that had stopped in a Manhattan station, a four-minute video shows. While Neely slipped into unconsciousness, around 10 passengers watched. A woman tried to walk around the cluster of people on the floor, but seeing Neely flail his legs, she bit her lip and stepped back. Another woman typed on her phone, looked at Neely then glanced out the subway doors. One man stepped into the train and told Penny, “You’re going to kill him.” He did not physically intervene. Nor, under New York law, did he have to, reports the New York Times. Nationally, the killing of Neely, who the police said had been acting in a “hostile and erratic manner,” has set off a broad political debate about vigilante behavior. Democrats backed the arrest of Penny, while conservative political figures called him a hero. His supporters have donated almost $2.5 million for his defense.


In New York, one of the nation’s most densely populated cities, Neely's death prompted a conversation about what moral duty onlookers have to one another and to those most troubled. The legal standard is clear: No state explicitly requires civilian strangers to intervene physically when they see an adult in danger, though some impose a duty to report wrongdoing and two set an ambiguous standard of rendering assistance. The value of such legislation has been debated for years, according to people who study the intersection of ethics, the law, and bystanderism — the phenomenon of being less likely to intervene when there are others present. In New York City, there is an unspoken code: “You do not get involved, you cannot solve every person’s problems. We learn to be very guarded,” said Ken Levy, a professor at the Paul M. Hebert Law Center at Louisiana State University, who studies bystanderism and who lived in New York for years. “The closest we can come to undoing a tragedy like this is by blaming the people who did it, and those who didn’t stop it,” he added.

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