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Each Monday, Tommy Tomlinson delivers thoughtful commentary on an important topic in the news. Through these perspectives, he seeks to find common ground that leads to deeper understanding of complex issues and that helps people relate to what others are feeling, even if they don’t agree.

A man dies from a chokehold, but also from fear and indifference

The death of a 30-year-old man in a New York City subway car has drawn attention around the world. WFAE’s Tommy Tomlinson, in his "On My Mind" commentary, thinks about the steps that led to that moment.

I like to think I know what I would’ve done, had I been on that subway car in New York City. The truth is, I have no idea.

Surely you have heard the story by now. Last week a homeless man got on a subway car and started screaming that he was hungry and ready to die. Witnesses described him as hostile and erratic. There is no doubt that he was scaring the other passengers. But he did not strike anybody. Still, another passenger came up behind him and put him in a chokehold. Other passengers helped hold him down for the four minutes it took him to die.

The homeless man had a name. Jordan Neely. He had once been known on the subways for his Michael Jackson impersonation, moonwalking down the aisles. He was also mentally ill and dealing with substance abuse. He was 30 years old and has lost the only life he will ever live.

Police interviewed the man who choked Neely to death but let him go for now.

I will be honest with you about some things. If I’m in my car and I come to a red light and somebody is panhandling out in the median, I usually roll up my window. Sometimes I’ll switch to a different lane. Every once in a while, when I’m feeling guilty, I’ll give someone a couple of bucks. But that’s the exception. The rule is, I try not to look.

I justify that by remembering what a lot of social workers and police say — it’s better for homeless people to eat and sleep at shelters than beg in the streets. I also tell myself that some of those panhandlers are scammers. But I don’t ever know that about the person right in front of me, asking for help. I never know if I’m turning down someone who is really in need.

I would not have been the man who choked Jordan Neely to death. In that moment, what Neely needed was someone to offer him some food or water, to try to calm him down. I don’t know if I would have been brave enough to be that person, either.

Every tragedy contains two stories. The first one is what happened in the moment. The second one is its larger meaning.

As a society, we refuse to provide what it takes to get homeless people off the streets — mental health care, drug and alcohol counseling, and above all, affordable housing. We treat the homeless like rats or roaches — pests that need to be cleared out.

It’s a symptom of a greater disease. Last week, in this space, I called it the empathy gap. So many of us have a fundamental lack of compassion for anyone not in our circle. We don’t want to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes; we want to burn the shoes.

Fixing the homeless problem in this country is big and complicated. Caring for a fellow human being shouldn’t be. But we have created a country where fear trumps love. And where the floor of a subway car turns into a deathbed.

Tommy Tomlinson’s "On My Mind" column runs Mondays on WFAE and WFAE.org.It represents his opinion, not the opinion of WFAE. You can respond to this column in the comments section below. You can also email Tommy at ttomlinson@wfae.org.

Tommy Tomlinson has hosted the podcast SouthBound for WFAE since 2017. He also does a commentary, On My Mind, which airs every Monday.