Free speech and free hate

“America…this is a free country. I can do whatever I want.” Can we all agree that “It’s a free country” does not mean that one can murder strangers?

Two active bystanders were killed by an angry man on a train in Portland on the Friday afternoon before Memorial Day. The aggressive man was threatening two young women. One was African-American and one wore a hijab. Three men approached to protect the young women, and two were fatally stabbed.

The details are sketchy about what was said and done before the fatal attack. What is consistent is this:

Jeremy Joseph Christian, a 35-year-old adult, was threatening two young women (or teenagers.) Mr. Christian is a white supremacist who attended the April 29th Free Speech Rally in Portland.

Three men approached to intervene on behalf of the young women. Two were stabbed, fatally. Another was injured.

What could the interveners have done?

This incident underlines one of my key points: the more interveners, the better. Three men would have been enough to subdue Mr. Christian, had he not stepped out his door that afternoon hell-bent on hurting someone. Someone that out of control would have needed everyone on that train to get up and surround those teenaged girls. Even then, he might have lashed out at whoever was closest.

When I teach bystander intervention, I tell my students that they need to be grounded before approaching. They need to know where the exits are. They need to assess the danger. It is easier said than done. That was not enough for the men who came to the aid of two young women in Portland. It seems like, in the mind of Jeremy Christian, someone was going to die on that train.

Mob mentality and terrorism:

Jeremy Joseph Christian is a premeditated murderer. If he hadn’t killed the two interveners, he would have killed two teenaged girls on a train last Friday night. He could not have been stopped by anything but a show of force. When ideologies of hate get time to fester, they can turn into murderous rage. Like other terrorists, he set out that afternoon to harass, and maybe, kill someone.

What we also know is that Mr. Christian was known for public hate speech and threats to Muslims, immigrants, and Jews. Reportedly, he brought a bat to the “Free Speech Rally” in Portland this April. The police confiscated it. He appears to be “not with” a group of free speech advocates in this Twitter video.

The result of the growth of the so-called “Free Speech” movement is that it gives license to people like Jeremy Joseph Christian. He was rejected by a group with a “Don’t Tread On Me” flag. But he was energized by some aspect of this movement and its message. The slogans of the “Free Speech” rally, plus his own threats, echoed in that murderous train on Friday afternoon.


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