By Rafia Zakaria
31 May 2017
IT was 4:30 in the afternoon, just before rush hour. The trains were crowded but not as much as they would soon be. Some witnesses in the Portland commuter train said that all the seats were taken and many passengers were standing, holding on to the handrails as the train made its way to the next stop.
It was at this moment that a white man by the name of Jeremy Christian began hurling abuse at two dark-skinned women, one of whom was wearing a hijab. Christian, who is now known to be a white supremacist, was yelling about how persons of colour were ruining the city and how he had First Amendment rights. Non-whites on the train said they felt scared and hoped that Christian would get off.
He did not get off — not until he had killed two people. As Christian got angrier, three men, an army veteran named Ricky John Best and two young men named Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche and Micah David-Cole Fletcher approached him and tried to calm him down and move him away from the two girls that he was harassing.
Within minutes, two of them would be dead. Christian pulled out a knife and stabbed Best and Meche. He also attacked Fletcher. Best died on the spot. Meche, who was stabbed in the neck, was clinging to life. One eyewitness who was with him before police and ambulances arrived at the scene described how she and other passengers urged Meche to hold on, to not give up. Meche was still alive when the ambulance arrived at the scene; the last thing he said before he was loaded on to the stretcher was, “Tell everyone on this train, I love them”.
Meche died at the hospital. Fletcher is expected to survive. The assailant, Jeremy Christian, has been charged with several counts of murder, attempted murder, intimidation and illegal possession of a weapon. Federal law-enforcement agencies are expected to consider whether the incident will also be prosecuted as a federal hate crime, which carries further penalties.
The attack is not a surprise. Even as American President Donald Trump danced with royalty in Saudi Arabia, his comments and policies at home have incited much hatred against American Muslims and in many cases even those people mistaken for Muslims. In the first 10 days after Trump won the election, there were 867 incidents of hate crimes in the United States.
In Oregon state, where the attack took place, one Muslim woke earlier this year to find “terrorist” spray-painted on his wall. In March, a man burst into a Middle Eastern restaurant and threatened the staff while yelling, “Get out of America!” White supremacist groups have increased their activities in the entire country and even marched in Asian-American neighbourhoods in the US.
Most of the groups, which openly advocate the expulsion of non-whites and particularly American Muslims, enjoy constitutional protections (as the assailant in this case was asserting) under freedom of speech granted by the First Amendment of the US constitution.
None of this is much of a surprise to American-Muslims or to Muslims anywhere in the world. If there is anything extraordinary about this attack in Portland, Oregon, it is that there were men who found the harassment of the two girls so repugnant that they put themselves in the line of fire in order to protect them. As the last words of Meche revealed, they believed that they were standing up for love and for the right of everyone to be on the train and not be harassed or targeted.
This belief, one for which two men, one a father of four, died, is an increasingly rare sentiment in our world. In Pakistan, where the demographic dynamics are reversed, and a Muslim majority daily bears witness to the persecution and targeting of minorities, such a scene cannot quite be imagined. No one travelling on a bus in Karachi or Lahore will try to shut up a belligerent and rage-filled man who is targeting two Christian or Hindu women.
As the sordid events in just the recent past reveal, crowds gather in Pakistan to kill and not to save. Acts of kindness and compassion, the project of standing up for principles larger than oneself, have been extinguished as a moral precept.
It is not, of course, an entirely Pakistani phenomenon. As the end of the second decade of the 21st century approaches, everyone, American or Pakistani, holds their hatred close to their hearts. Pakistanis shrug at the tribulations of faraway American Muslims, having little empathy left to consider their condition. Americans who happen to be Christian are not particularly concerned with their co-religionists who happen to live in South Asia or the Middle East. ‘America First’ is not just an American slogan; similar self-interest defines the rest of the world as well, drawing boundaries and putting limits on who we can or should or must care for.
Donald Trump, who had so much to say about terrorism to Muslims some days ago, was late in his condemnation. It is not surprising; hugging and embracing Muslim sultans is far easier than invoking tolerance for Muslims who ride trains.
Against these dark realities that provide little illumination in this month of spiritual reflection, this then is the story from Portland. Two men died for strangers, not because it was their job or part of their religion to care or to speak up or to try and protect the two girls, but simply because it was the right thing to do.
Their bravery is being celebrated now but their families are left in grief as the men have gone forever. Few of us can aspire to that level of selflessness, that height of bravery, but we can remember and listen and consider, maybe even for a small second, how crucial it is to stand up and say something, in the now, in this moment when hatred reigns worldwide.
Rafia Zakaria is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.