On Saturday, June 3, during the March for Truth, my 12-year-old daughter and her 14-year-old friend were accosted in downtown Portland by a middle-aged man lauding the actions of Jeremy Christian, who slashed the throats of three Good Samaritans on a train in our city a week ago after they attempted to redirect his attention away from the two 16-year-old girls — one African American, one Muslim — he was assaulting with racist slurs and nationalistic rantings.
The white supremacist who came after us targeted my daughter and her friend, and then me when I put myself between them, shouting that we, too, deserved to die; stalking us down the street while screaming that it would be self-defense if he killed us, because we were assaulting his right to think differently than we do; that we were trying to steal his right to free speech. This, because we deigned to stand on a patch of sidewalk he preferred to occupy, holding aloft a photograph honoring the three men who intervened to help those other children one week previous.
The next night, Sunday, June 4, I sat in the company of Senator Jeff Merkley and Portland City Commissioner Chloe Eudaly and a slew of Muslims and Christians and Sikhs and atheists and Jews at an interfaith ceremony honoring the families of the slain Samaritans. Together, as a community of strangers, we shared the iftar to break the fast of Ramadan, that revered month that began on the night eight days ago when two men died protecting a child in a hijab. I thanked the parents of the dead men, and held the hand of the sister of the slain, and the man who survived put his arm around the shoulder of my son — the arm he can lift, the arm on the side of his body that does not have a long track of stitches stretching from his ear across his neck in a hasty arc to his shoulder. The surviving Samaritan, Micah Fletcher, hugged my son and told him never to let anyone diminish his sense of who he can be and what he can accomplish.
What a difference 24 hours makes; Saturday to Sunday. I am forever flummoxed by the way in which good and evil, love and hate, sidle up so closely to each other — on a calendar page, in a city, on a train. Mere moments after a man stuck a knife into his neck, Taliesin Namkai-Meche's last words were, "Tell everyone on this train I love them" and his words took in his murderer, too. While a Native American woman took off her shirt to press it to Taliesin's neck, whispering, "You're such a beautiful man. I'm sorry the world is so cruel," just a few feet away another man bent over the dead body of Ricky Best and stole the wedding ring off of his hand. And on the same day that three separate fundraisers for the victims and their families reached a combined pledge total of over a million dollars, alt-right/neo-Nazi/white supremacists from all over the country flew to Portland to rally for their small-minded cause.
It is such an easy thing, in the face of that degree of hatred, to become jaded and angry and fearful. It is hard not to respond to fury with fury. There is so much to abhor in a man who praises a murderer while chasing a mother and her children down a public street. "I wanted to hit him!" my daughter's friend said of our provocateur. "I wanted to hurt him so badly my whole body was shaking!" Mine was too, I acknowledged, but then I asked of my daughter and her friend: How might we have helped ourselves, or the man who came after us, by hurting him back? What would we have made better by fighting with an irate stranger on a street corner? He is broken, I said; he is a broken person, and you cannot fix that which is shattered by tearing it further apart. We talked, then, of what such a man must have seen, or been subjected to, that trying to scare children in a park is, for him, the best thing he can aspire to on a sunny Saturday afternoon. And when we cried it wasn't in service to our own fear, but instead at the thought of how much hurt such a man must have endured before he broke and was reborn into the hate he aimed at us.
I have no easy answer as to what to do in the face of such brokenness. Sometimes you run from it, as I did yesterday, because there are children to protect, while at other times you run toward it, as those three Samaritans did a week previous, for the exact same reason. It is such a tattered and tenuous thread we cling to, that thin line between good and evil, between love and hate, between walking away with the children and falling to the floor with a knife in your throat. But I believe, in the end, ours is an unbalanced scale, and it tips toward goodness. I believe — as the imam challenged us on Sunday night - that we must find a way to "ask the angry, wounded, neglected man: Are you all right?" And I believe there will come a day when our courage, our conviction, and our compassion will make it so.
I do not think I will live to see that day. The Samaritans certainly will not.
But the children may.
Author Ellen Urbani, author of the novel "Landfall" and memoir "When I was Elena," lives with her family in West Linn.