jordan neely

The Sheepdog Defense

Photo: Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images

Little is known about Daniel Penny, but two facts stand out. He killed Jordan Neely on an F train, and he once served in the Marine Corps. In the imagination of the right wing, the latter eclipses the former in importance. The Daily Mail, which is a right-wing tabloid, described him early on as “a decorated sergeant.” On Friday, Penny’s attorney, Thomas Kenniff, a former Republican candidate for Manhattan district attorney, spoke of Penny’s “honorable service” as the 24 year-old turned himself in to face a charge of second-degree manslaughter. Penny’s attorneys have raised nearly $2 million for his legal defense on GiveSendGo, the same Christian website raising money for the January 6 defendants, where Penny appears in uniform. Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida tweeted a link to the fundraiser on Friday, saying, “We stand with Good Samaritans like Daniel Penny. Let’s show this Marine … America’s got his back.”

DeSantis isn’t the only elected official to support Penny while emphasizing his military service. “Instead of putting handcuffs on this Marine, New York should put a medal on him,” tweeted Representative Wesley Hunt of Texas, a Republican. Representative Matt Gaetz, a Republican from Florida, dubbed him the “Subway Superman” and “a U.S. patriot” on his Firebrand podcast. The editorial page of The Wall Street Journal went nearly as far as Gaetz and Hunt in a Friday opinion piece. “The details of what happened will presumably be presented at trial, but it’s clear his intention wasn’t to kill Neely,” the Journal wrote. “It was to protect himself and others. As a 24-year-old veteran, he may have felt a particular responsibility to do so.” Echoing DeSantis, the Journal continued, “We sometimes call such men good samaritans when they intervene to stop a shooter or step between a young woman and a harasser.”

As Jesus tells the story, the Good Samaritan aids rather than kills an injured traveler. He bandages the man’s wounds, places him on his own donkey, and takes him to an inn, where Jesus pays the innkeeper to look after him. Go and do likewise, Jesus says. Penny did not. Though Neely was wounded in his own way by mental illness and his mother’s murder, Penny strangled him to death. There was no Good Samaritan on the F train that day. Penny’s defenders have manufactured a fantasy that has little to do with the Bible or with what we know of Neely’s killing.

The right had already embraced white vigilantes by the time Penny killed the unarmed Neely on May 1. Before there was Penny, there was Daniel Perry; before there was Daniel Perry, there was Kyle Rittenhouse. Penny isn’t even the first servicemember or veteran to be celebrated for his vigilantism. But the reaction to Penny uncovers another disturbing phenomenon. To conservatives, Penny’s military service grants him special status. His defenders call him a marine, present tense, as though he were still serving the day he killed Neely. Senator J.D. Vance of Ohio, a Republican and a Marine veteran, remarked upon the “protective instinct” Penny showed. Such comments never mention Neely. The man is a nameless threat, a wolf. Penny, in killing him, was simply a marine doing his job.

In the conservative defense of Penny, a pernicious analogy is visible. Police instructor and Army veteran David Grossman writes in On Combat that “an old war veteran” once told him about wolves, sheep, and sheepdogs. “If you have no capacity for violence then you are a healthy productive citizen: a sheep,” he continues. A person with “a capacity for violence and no empathy” for his fellows is “an aggressive sociopath — a wolf.” To stop them, there are sheepdogs. “But what if you have a capacity for violence, and a deep love for your fellow citizens?” Grossman asks. “Then you are a sheepdog, a warrior, someone who is walking the hero’s path.” As Slate reported in 2015, Grossman’s sheepdog analogy has become popular among law enforcement, servicemembers, and veterans. That’s due in part to the activities of Grossman himself. His training sessions and conferences are frequent and well attended. Now, the right seems to consider Penny an extension of law enforcement, a sheepdog protecting his subway flock.

The rise of the sheepdog metaphor follows a gradual but deliberate breakdown in the distinctions between law enforcement and the military. The war on drugs not only contributed to the militarization of police departments across America but created new opportunities for the military to collaborate with law enforcement. Conservative intellectuals championed an expanded and more militaristic role for the police, citing a fantastical battle between good and evil. “Rioters, drug pushers, drug addicts, career criminals — these people were beyond redemption. The only proper response to evil was force — and then only to keep the evil from harming the good,” explains Radley Balko in Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces. The war on terror has accelerated older trends. It has done so in a very literal way, as police departments benefit handsomely from Department of Homeland Security anti-terrorism grants, and it has helped alter the public imagination, too. Grossman published On Combat in 2004, three years after 9/11. Cops and troops now profit from the same praetorian culture. They’re honored in one breath at parades and at football games, and when a sheepdog kills, conservatives close ranks around him.

Aspiring sheepdogs face a dilemma, however. In the animal kingdom, it’s easy to distinguish a sheep from a wolf; among humans, it’s more difficult. “Faced with this problem, how can you tell a wolf from a sheep?” asked Michael Cummings and Eric Cummings in Slate. “The easiest way is race.” In the Neely case, it matters who was doing the killing but also who was being killed. And if Penny is a sheepdog, then Neely, a Black man, is a wolf. “Daniel Penny getting charged,” tweeted Richard Hanania, who is the president of the Center for the Study of Partisanship and Ideology. “These people are animals, whether they’re harassing people in subways or walking around in suits.” While Neely is dehumanized, Penny is valorized. Nobody has said outright that Neely deserved to die, but cowards imply as much in comment after comment. He was loud. He made people uncomfortable. Somebody had to intervene. The sheep had such good fortune to be served by Daniel Penny.

There is a possibility that this defense will backfire. His service also means he probably knew the chokehold could kill. In an online petition, a former Marine infantryman pointed out that Penny, who is also a former infantryman, had likely “received formal instruction on the technique including the fact that it was potentially lethal if held for more than several seconds.” At a more basic level, Penny’s defenders should contend with the knowledge that the city is home to thousands of veterans who ride the subway every day without killing people. In holding Penny up as an exemplar of public service, conservatives reinforce the negative stereotype that veterans are potentially dangerous.

Penny’s defenders populate the world with vicious caricatures. If there are only sheep, sheepdogs, and wolves, Neely had no chance to be a human. Neither does anyone else. Only by insisting on a sense of shared humanity can we get to the truth: Daniel Penny is no sheepdog. He is not a hero, and he deserves no further medals. He’s in the news because he brutalized another human being to death. If that’s what passes for valor, nobody is safe.

Daniel Penny’s Sheepdog Defense