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  • Reverend James Squire

Jordan Neely: The Butterfly Effect




Jordan Neely who was homeless, was arrested 42 times, had mental health issues and entered the New York Subway stating that he didn’t care if he died and frightened the passengers on the train with his words and unpredictable actions. He was put in a chokehold by a former Marine and died as a result of being unable to breathe because of that intervention by the ex-Marine. Other passengers joined him in holding Mr. Neely down. In all probability the person who choked him to death was familiar with the way to subdue someone who was acting out of control with a chokehold. He also would have known how long it should be held before a fatality.


Evidently the subway was notorious for violence as the number of police officers who patrolled the area had increased. Hindsight being 20/20 vision, the system failed Neely. Where along the way of those 42 arrests should the proper mental health care have people intervened and be part of his process going forward to support him? If that intervention had occurred, I believe that he would not have suffered the fate that took his life.


This is a situation that, if I presented it in ethics class, I would ask the students to have some members take on the role of what it was like for the passengers that were on the train. The initial feedback was that they were fearful because of the numerous incidents that had already occurred on the subway. I would ask another group of students to talk about what it might have been like to be the marine who put the chokehold on Jordan Neely. What was he thinking, feeling, and reacting to? You have to consider his context as well. How much of his intervention was part of his training to intervene with someone who was acting strangely in an unpredictable way. Would a Wall Street banker have had the same reaction?


But we also have to get into the shoes of the person who was dealing with a mental health crisis. What if it were a therapist or a trained social worker there instead of someone with the training of a marine? I think Mr. Neely would still be alive! A therapist would know that as afraid as we might be in the presence of a meltdown, the inconceivable would be the truth of the matter. Jordan Neely was probably more afraid of the subway passengers than they were of him. I have been in enough situations where that was true to be able to present it as Neely’s context.


But there is something else that contributed to Neely’s death and most recently it was the mass murder in Texas and pass mass murders in general that also made its way to that subway car in that ill-fated moment.


In 1963 Edward Lorenz made a presentation to the New York Academy of Sciences and was literally laughed out of the room. His theory, The Butterfly Effect, stated that a butterfly could flap its wings and set air molecules in motion that would influence the weather on the other side of the planet. In the 1990s physics professors from several universities proved The Butterfly Effect was accurate, viable, and was consistent all of the time. It became a law. They had to give it a more important name, The Law of Sensitive Dependence Upon Initial Conditions.


We have a Butterfly Effect of violence in our nation. We have tried to compartmentalized it and put it into silos of experience but that continues to fail. What we learn in hard science can also tell us how our social connections work as well. We couldn’t have Existentialism where everything is paradoxical in life, meaning it cuts both ways with such things as rain is necessary for crops but it can also drown you. Life is paradoxical. We often will say “on the one hand this, but on the other hand that”. Existentialism is built on the physics discovery of Planck’s Wave/Particle Theory where on the one hand matter is a particle that turns into a wave and on and on. The science of the Butterfly Effect can help us understand the cause of violence in our nation.


Violence is contagious. We should know about contagious things after coming through the Pandemic.


But there is more. The Butterfly Effect behavior affected those people on the subway. What caused the mental illness in Jordan Neely? It was said that he never got over his mother’s death. It’s obvious that The Butterfly Effect created anxiety for the passengers not only for the violence in our country but also their awareness of the previous violence on the subway.


Let’s turn to the marine. There’s a paradox for us to consider. I am sure that he was trained to do what he did without thinking, He may have acted in some way that was second nature for him, but I am sure that he was trained not to hold the chokehold that long.


Then there are the Butterflies who flapped their wings of insurrection by the name of Josh Hawley and Tucker Carlson to name just two. Remember Hawley with the raised fist and then running away when the insurrection occurred. Those two are as complicit as those who stormed the capitol. I had to smile when Carlson’s recently discovered racist tweeted as three people attacked another man with violence that, “they didn’t fight like white men.” The only fight those two have ever seen is on the silver screen. My only question would be who would win the race as they run away from one. Let’s have that Benny Hill theme song playing in the back ground. Clearly as they were planning on supporting the over throw of our government, these two tough guys never heard Mike Tyson’s quotation about planning. “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”


Now here is the hard part. What would you, the reader, do if you got into the shoes (empathy) of Jordan Neely? What would you be like if you were a passenger? Would you act as the ex-marine did? Why and what informed your perspective? Does Neely’s race inform your perspective?


Some will say that it is clear what was the right thing to do. Others may disagree. You are about to enter into full contact ethics as my students referred to the course.

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