By Robert C. Koehler
“Tell them, I want everybody to know, I want everybody on the train to know, I love them . . .”
These words are also part of the geopolitics of murder — these words of light and hope, alive and pulsing amid the bullet casings, the blood and wreckage, the shattered lives. They were the dying words of Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche, one of the two people stabbed to death last week on a commuter train in Portland, Ore., after they had intervened to stop a man’s tirade of racial slurs — “go back to Saudi Arabia!” — directed at two teenage girls on the train.
As incidents of mass murder — sometimes called terrorism, sometimes just called, with a shrug, drone strikes or bombing runs — continue to erupt across the planet and dominate the news, I stroke these words, and the soul of awareness we are so blind to. We’re not going to bomb evil out of existence or control it with authoritarian laws, travel bans or insane walls. We’re not going to control it by dehumanizing “the other.”
The Portland murders are old news now. It was over a week ago that the suspect, Jeremy Joseph Christian, went on a drunken rant against the two girls, one of whom was wearing a hijab, then stabbed Namkai-Meche, along with Ricky John Best, who also died, and Micah David-Cole Fletcher, who managed to survive his neck wound.
A local TV station interviewed witness Rachel Macy, who knelt at Meche’s side as he died. “I just didn’t want him to be alone,” she said. “I took my shirt off and put it on him. We held it together, I just prayed, all I could do was pray.
“I told him, ‘You’re a beautiful man. I’m so sorry the world is so cruel.’”
And then he said: “I want everybody on the train to know I love them.”
And somehow, no, the news cycle does not move on. Despite the horror and violence and hatred, this moment, too, is part of our world — and reaches beyond itself, reaches into the heart of every occupant of Planet Earth. I don’t know what it changes, but I know it opens a door.
Macy also said: “I wanted to wake up and be mad and blame something or someone. And I can’t. It’s not what he would have wanted.”
But who am I kidding? The news cycle does, indeed, move on. “You call it terrorism, I call it patriotism!” the murder suspect exclaimed when he made his court appearance. Where would he get that idea?
Within days, three men drove a van into pedestrians on London Bridge, then exited the van and started stabbing people. At least eight people were killed and 50 injured; the three terrorists were shot and killed by police. ISIS claimed credit.
Two days later, a former employee entered the RV accessory business in Orlando, Fla., from which he had been fired in April and started shooting, killing five people. He then turned the gun on himself. This happened a week prior to the one-year anniversary of the massacre at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub, when a gunmen killed 49 people and wounded 53 others.
And two days after that, men disguised as women, armed with assault rifles and grenades, stormed the Parliament building and the site of the shrine of Ayatollah Khomeini in Tehran, killing at least 12 people. ISIS claimed credit for that, too.
This is the news we’re used to. This is our world. Each incident is reported separately, self-contained, a fragment of hell. If it’s declared an act of terror, then the link is made to ISIS or whomever. If it’s a mass murder, the killer is simply disgruntled or disturbed and always a loner. But the stories converge anyway, like a rolling shockwave of unsanctioned violence. Whatever the killers’ intention or strategic aim, the news is the terrible pain and grief they have inflicted, the innocence they have violated. It’s always the same, and we can always feel it.
But we deal in violence anyway. When it’s state-sanctioned, we rally around it, glorify it, worship it. No matter it produces the same results. No matter it always comes back to haunt us, one way or another.
In the wake of the Portland stabbings—days later–came this presidential tweet: “The violent attacks in Portland on Friday are unacceptable. The victims were standing up to hate and intolerance. Our prayers are w/them.” But the president also wants to push through a $110 billion weapons deal with ISIS-linked Saudi Arabia, which has been pummeling its impoverished neighbor Yemen for the last two years — and which has been receiving U.S. assistance throughout the process, which Trump wants to amplify.
Last fall, the New York Times reported that the Saudi war “has sunk into a grinding stalemate, systematically obliterating Yemen’s already bare-bones economy. . . . It has hit hospitals and schools. It has destroyed bridges, power stations, poultry farms, a key seaport and factories that produce yogurt, tea, tissues, ceramics, Coca-Cola and potato chips. It has bombed weddings and a funeral.
“The bombing campaign has exacerbated a humanitarian crisis in the Arab world’s poorest country, where cholera is spreading, millions of people are struggling to get enough food, and malnourished babies are overwhelming hospitals. . . . “
And, oh yeah: U.S. weapons sales to the Saudis, U.S. training of Saudi pilots, have left “American fingerprints” all over the wreckage, according to the Times. In Sana’a, the capital city, walls are covered with graffiti exclaiming: “America is killing the Yemeni people.”
The essence of war is “social substitutability”: granting oneself permission to dehumanize people who symbolize a problem, whether because of their uniform, their race, their nationality, their religion, their place of employment — or virtually any other distinguishing factor. A dehumanized enemy can then be taken out: murdered.
When disgruntled loners play this game, the results are appalling. When state-sanctioned professionals do it . . . they have to keep on doing it. Waging war is, with very few exceptions, the nation’s political, economic and moral cornerstone.
Consider the alternative: “Tell them, I want everybody to know, I want everybody on the train to know, I love them.”
This is one man’s dying awareness. What if it were the cornerstone of our global social order?Φ
Robert Koehler, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is a Chicago award-winning journalist and editor.