I’m a Portlander. Political Extremism Is Poison

Simple, polarized narratives won't save us from domestic radicals—but there is a possible answer

I’m a Portlander. Political Extremism Is Poison I’m a Portlander. Political Extremism Is Poison
On May 26, 2017, tragedy struck my hometown when a white supremacist stabbed three people on a train. Two died of their wounds. The... I’m a Portlander. Political Extremism Is Poison

On May 26, 2017, tragedy struck my hometown when a white supremacist stabbed three people on a train. Two died of their wounds. The incident began when 35-year-old Jeremy Christian began aggressively harassing two young women riding the Portland MAX line. The women were black and one wore a hijab.

Christian told them to “get out of my country,” telling them they weren’t welcome. When a crowd stepped in to try to calm him, he lashed out—killing retired U.S. Army Sgt. Ricky Best, 53, and Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche, 23.

Some have labeled Christian a terrorist. During his arraignment, he proclaimed “you call it terrorism, I call it patriotism.”

Christian is a tough nut to crack in terms of ideology. His social media accounts show that he was a supporter of Bernie Sanders during the 2016 election. He also praised Trump and said that “if Trump is Hitler” he was joining the SS.

Christian has also been outspoken about his hatred for immigrants and feminists, and his affinity for the Confederacy and Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. On April 29, he was ejected from a conservative rally after performing a Nazi salute and uttering racial slurs.

What does seem clear is that he was a deeply disturbed and hateful person who embraced conspiracy theories and violence. The stabbing raises a series of disturbing questions.

In a recent profile in The New Yorker, reporter Dexter Filkins asked Defense Secretary Jim Mattis what he was most worried about. His response was not Islamic State, Iran, Russia or North Korea.

“The lack of political unity in America. The lack of a fundamental friendliness,” Mattis said. “It seems like an awful lot of people in America and around the world feel spiritually and personally alienated, whether it be from organized religion or from local community school districts or from their governments.”

Social and political polarization has been a growing trend for years. Now it’s emerging as a security problem. It’s time we start really talking about that. It’s not too late.

The Portland MAX line. Finetooth photo via Wikimedia

I can’t really talk about what happened without getting a little bit personal. I grew up in Portland but I often didn’t feel entirely at home there. I was a nerdy kid who had what could only be described as an off-putting interest in violence. I studied warfare, terrorism and organized crime with an enthusiasm that made the granola-munching Oregonians I was surrounded by uneasy. However, it also led me to spearhead a school supply drive for kids in Iraq and to tutor kids in a local mosque.

When anti-war demonstrators burned an effigy of an American soldier shortly before I graduated high school, I decided that Portland wasn’t really my scene.

Ultimately, interest in war and other cultures set me on the path to the Army ROTC. I was medically disqualified after two years of training but came out with life-long friendships and experiences that have fundamentally shaped me as a person. After washing out of the program, I freelanced in the Middle East and studied Allied war documents in Europe.

And for a long time, I unfairly viewed Portlanders as cowards and hypocrites. I knew so many white people who bragged about their progressive views but became visibly uncomfortable around black people. I’d see people give lectures about economic justice before absentmindedly stepping over homeless people. Self-proclaimed environmentalists used their time and money to harass blue collar loggers in struggling mill towns.

Growing up in Portland is a huge part of the reason I’ve found myself allergic to partisan politics, and why my response to the question “are you liberal or conservative?” is a hard “no.” It’s also probably how I ended up a journalist—so that I could be professionally adversarial to anyone too secure in their own belief system.

After the election of Donald Trump, several Portlanders responded by smashing businesses around the city—many of them small businesses. When my dad went to work afterward, he said it struck him that immigrants seemed like the ones mostly cleaning up the mess. Most of them probably weren’t happy with the election result, either. But that’s so typically Portland, I thought.

Recently, Portland Antifa managed to get the annual Rose Parade shut down over safety concerns after making threats to attack any GOP presence in the parade. It’s moments like this that show why Portland so often can’t have nice things.

But hearing about the MAX line attack was a jolt. I recalled riding the MAX with friends to go see Hellboy on opening day. I remembered going to Voodoo Doughnut in the middle of the night for the first time. I remembered tutoring Muslim students at the mosque. I remembered talking to fellow Oregonian Joe Coon in 2006 when he got back from Iraq about sending school supplies over there. I remembered that I love Portland.

Portlanders stood up to a racist thug and two of them gave their lives, and one was seriously injured. Best and Namkai-Meche showed me I was wrong—Portlanders aren’t cowards. In their last moments, they exemplified all that was best about the city.

In many ways those two men could not have been more different. Namkai-Meche was a recent graduate of Reed College, an institution known throughout the country for being a hotbed of left-wing political thought. He majored in economics and worked at an environmental consulting agency. Best was a combat veteran and Portland city employee who was active in Republican politics. He mounted an unsuccessful bid for Clackamas County commissioner.

“He couldn’t just stand by and do nothing,” Best’s son Erik told local T.V. station KATU. “He died fighting the good fight protecting the innocent. Honestly, that’s what he probably would have wanted.”

“We’re all people. We all bleed red. It doesn’t matter what color or religion. It doesn’t matter. We’re all human beings,” he added. “I miss him. We all miss him. He was a hero.”

Micah Fletcher, the third stabbing victim and a survivor of the attack, told reporters after getting out of the hospital that he wanted Muslims to know that “we won’t let anybody scare you into thinking you can’t be a part of this town, this country.”

Their sacrifice showed true courage and decency. Something that transcends politics, race or religion. Of course, the swelling pride in my hometown couldn’t last forever. I briefly forgot about how Oregon politicians would respond.

After the attack, Multnomah County GOP chair James Buchal told The Guardian that he thought it was time for his party to invite right-wing paramilitary groups to public events. Mayor Ted Wheeler, a Democrat, has for his part asked the federal government to revoke a permit for an upcoming rally organized by the Vancouver-based Patriot Prayer. The ACLU of Oregon responded, stating that the government “cannot revoke or deny a permit based on the viewpoint of the demonstrators. Period.”

There are so many terrifying ideas coming from all sides that I’m not quite sure where to even start.

First, there has been a game waged by political activists to shove Christian’s beliefs onto their enemies. Conservatives point to his support for Sanders as evidence that he’s a leftist. Liberals point to his white supremacist and misogynistic views as evidence that he’s alt-right. No one wants him—except evidently several commenters on 4chan who have anonymously praised him for killing “cucks.”

Now, I’ve had the opportunity to talk to a lot of people about extremism both in my capacity as journalist and citizen. Regardless of where people sit on the political spectrum, it’s to be expected that many will be unwilling to acknowledge extremists who draw inspiration from their own rhetoric or community groups.

And if your response to any discussion of terrorism and extremism that hits a little close to home is “well, the real threat is [insert group that isn’t yours],” let me stop you right there.

It’s not a contest. Christian, a one-time Sanders supporter who identified as a libertarian just stabbed Best, former Republican candidate, and two others on a train while they were standing up against racism. Simple narratives won’t solve everything now.

Denying the existence of problems won’t make them go away, either. There are radical Islamists—as the Pulse massacre showed us. There are white nationalists—as the Charleston massacre showed us. The Dallas shootings showed us that black nationalists can be violent too—Micah Johnson could be dismissed as an outlier—but it’s arrogant to assume that he’s a one-off. Any ideology taken to its extreme can be violent and turned to terrorism. We need to be vigilant against it in all its forms.

This doesn’t mean to be afraid. In fact, part of this is learning how not to be afraid of people who have different political beliefs, ethnic backgrounds or religions. We need to learn to be more decent, to bring back what Mattis called “fundamental friendliness.” We need to reject tribalism. We need to follow the example of Best, Namkai-Meche and Fletcher.

It’s going to be scary. It’s going to be uncomfortable. But we have to try.

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