Bravest Men in Babylon

Would you risk your life for a stranger? John Lally did.

He was driving on Houston’s Southwest Freeway around 10 a.m. on Saturday when he found himself caught in a gunfight between cops and a suspected carjacker. Lally, an ex-con with multiple prior run-ins with law enforcement, had been on his way to work at a mulch yard. He recorded the ordeal because he thought his coworkers wouldn’t believe him.

Police officers spotted a car that was reported stolen the previous day. The suspect, a yet unidentified 19-year-old, refused to stop when they tried to pull him over. He crashed into several other cars after a brief pursuit. That was when Officer J. Gibson, a 29-year-old who recently became a father, ordered the driver to get out. The suspect replied by shooting Gibson in the leg.

Lally sprang into action without hesitating.

He ran toward the gunshots, bullets whizzing around him, to help another officer drag Gibson to safety behind the big work truck he was driving. “It’s just your leg,” Lally can be heard saying in the recording. “It’s just your leg, you hear me? Just squeeze my hand as tight as you have to.”

“It was my calling to be here with you today, you hear me?” he said.

Lally does not believe in coincidences. He even told reporters that he could relate to Gibson’s anguish because he had been shot in the same leg in the past. I don’t think you have to feel a bullet tear through your flesh to understand that it hurts, but that is still remarkable. And thanks to him, Gibson lived to see his 20-month-old child.

Heroism is a rare commodity these days. Societies that are as dysfunctional and cynical as ours do not seem to encourage it, least of all in men. Lally’s story is powerful because it is a reminder that the everyday American still has the capacity for it. It has a happy ending, unlike the Daniel Penny case.

Penny is the former Marine who wrestled with homeless man Jordan Neely on the subway in New York City after Neely threatened straphangers. Neely died after they fought, and a medical examiner declared his death a homicide. Penny quickly became the  poster child for supposed murderous white racism in the aftermath. Like Lally, I am suspicious of coincidences and could not help but notice Penny bears a striking resemblance to the figure in the ancient Roman statue “The Dying Gaul.”

But witnesses described Neely as menacing and Penny as a hero. His legal team recently cited their statements in court in their request to have the case thrown out, although the court of public opinion has already issued its ruling against him.

More to the point, the case of Daniel Penny shows the dark side of heroism. Lally was redeemed by it; Penny condemned. That, along with injury and death, is the razor’s edge walked by those who risk their lives for others at a time when about half the population would have looked on idly as Gibson struggled or allowed Neely to tear into subway riders.

Being a brave man in Babylon is hard and will get harder. But that is when it matters most.

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