'You call it terrorism. I call it patriotism!'

KAREL VALANSI
Published

Hate is alive and well. This is not only true for the war torn Middle East, but also the United States, where democratic values are the fundamental beliefs and constitutional principles of the society, uniting all Americans under the same safe roof. These values are expressed in the Declaration of Independence, the constitution of the United States and in any significant document or speech.

However, the United States, a country established by immigrants, has turned into a place where hate dominates politics. It also became a reality for some Americans who have to survive daily hateful harassment, intimidation and assault.

"You call it terrorism. I call it patriotism!" This is exactly how Jeremy Joseph Christian, a white supremacist accused of killing two men and injuring one in Portland, Oregon, defended himself in court. The shocking incident occurred during rush hour on a commuter train last week. Jeremy Joseph Christian, a 35-year-old unemployed, homeless man, started to verbally abuse two teenagers, one wearing a hijab. Three men on the train intervened to protect the terrified girls from his anti-Muslim abuse. Christian attacked them, killing two and wounding one. According to surveillance cameras with audio recording, Christian continued to yell racial and religious epithets, even threatening to decapitate people, during the attack. When police arrested him several blocks away, he confessed to the stabbings saying that he can die a happy man now.

Christian defends his actions with his right to free speech. Yes, free speech! "Death to the enemies of America. Leave this country if you hate our freedom," he yelled in the courthouse. "Death to antifa! (anti-fascism). Free speech or die Portland, you've got no safe place, this is America, get out if you don't like free speech," he continued.

He is charged with two counts of aggravated murder, one count of attempted aggravated murder, and other related charges. Investigating his background, police found many disturbing posts supporting white supremacy, attacking women, black people, transgender people, praising fascism and even videos of him performing Nazi salute at a "Free Speech" march in Portland in April. He has no known mental health history but a long list of run-ins with law enforcement; robbery, kidnapping, use of dangerous weapons.

One can easily trivialize this attack as the murderer is a homeless person with no responsibilities and no future. But it is not that simple. There was every possible sign screaming that this horrible attack was approaching. It was hate speech that lead to the attack. Just checking his Facebook account one could have found without difficulty the traces of his ideology and what he is capable of. Hate speech is the clue, the evidence of what that person can do in suitable conditions.

Is there a correlation between Trump's election and the rise of hate speech and crime, as it is usually claimed? First of all, U.S. President Donald Trump did not invent racism and xenophobia. Since the 9/11 attacks, Islamophobia was already on the rise in the country. However, now the U.S. has a president who openly exploits this, with his divisive rhetoric demonizing Muslims and Mexicans, scapegoating refugees and immigrants. He made it more acceptable to embrace xenophobia. And xenophobia, including Islamophobia and antisemitism, is damaging the fabric of a healthy society.

This case is a clear example. It took Trump three days to mention the racist attack. A man who governs by Twitter, stayed silent for three days and finally a tweet came. But the tweet came from his official Twitter account run by his staff, and not from his personal account which he controls. "The violent attacks in Portland on Friday are unacceptable. The victims were standing up to hate and intolerance. Our prayers are w/ them," read the tweet without even mentioning the names of the heroes who intervened and lost their life or that the attack was against a religious group who has the same rights as any other American.

In an emotional video message Destinee Mangum, one of the teenage girls verbally attacked by Christian, thanked the people who put their life on the line for her. "They lost their lives because the way we looked," she said. "The attacker was just telling us that we basically weren't anything and that we should kill ourselves," she added. And this is exactly what hate speech wants to achieve; anxiety and intimidation.

On the other hand, in every tragedy there is inspiration. Ricky Best, Taliesin Namkai-Meche and Micah Fletcher stepped forward to protect these girls and stood up to hate and intolerance instead of pretending like nothing was happening. And just in this, there is a very powerful reminder that decency may overcome hatred.

* Columnist with Şalom, a weekly Turkish-Jewish newspaper

The author is a columnist with Şalom, a weekly Turkish-Jewish newspaper

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