Peter Boghossian and Matt Thornton, a conversation about the Portland train stabbing

On Friday, May 26th of this year, two men were killed on a local Portland train. You can read an account of the event here – Wikipedia.

Within hours this sad tragedy had become a political talking point for too many. Surely the rise of the ‘Alt-Right’ has created an environment where Nazis like this attacker felt free to spew hatred? Obviously Portland is a racist city. And of course, Donald Trump is to blame. On it went. Posts shared, and ideologically held opinions safely reinforced.

Before long various sites began sharing posts made by the attacker on his Facebook page. He seems to have supported Bernie Sanders; hoped Hillary would get shot, expressed a large dose of anti-Semitism, supported Black Lives Matter as well as the Nation of Islam, was in “solidarity” with the protestors at Standing Rock, and was in favor of an ‘Aryan State’. A scroll through the man’s Facebook page didn’t reveal someone who supported Trump, but rather someone who was mentally ill. And that shouldn’t have surprised anyone.

I don’t think most of the people who began using the murder of these two men for their political agenda are bad human beings. I don’t think they recognized, or perhaps even now realize that they were washing their hands in the blood of the dead.

So what is there to say about such a terrible event?

The most productive thing we can do is draw lessons from these incidents that help keep those we love safer.

It’s important to understand that in doing so, in mining the past for future instruction, I am not judging the actions of those that were there. I rarely take too seriously people who claim with assured tones how they would respond in such a high pressure situation. Unless they have plenty of past experience to validate their confidence, the truth is most people have no idea how they will react. Some will freeze, some will flee, some will confront or engage – and most would be surprised at how little control they have over which of those reactions occurred. We all hope we would respond appropriately, but we are all, at various times, vulnerable to anger and fear.

Finally, we need to use this incident to remind ourselves, and those we love, just how dangerous knives are. I’ve often heard, from people with no training or experience, questions related to why a police officer was involved in a shooting when the suspect ‘only’ had a knife – or was potentially reaching for one. People, as a whole, have absolutely no idea just how dangerous bladed weapons can be. Dennis Tueller’s twenty one foot rule hasn’t just been proven to be true, it’s been revised – in most cases you need more than twenty one feet.

When this mentally unstable attacker moved away from the two young women he was verbally harassing, everyone else should have moved away from him.

It would not surprise me (I am not making a moral argument), if Jeremy Christian ends up pleading on a self-defense charge. Why? Because he was on train, confronted by three men (disparity of force), shoving ensued (it escalated), and he therefore used a weapon. Is it disgusting that a man would yell horrible things at two young women, scaring them in the process? Yes! It is disgusting. Does that mean you can then go ‘hands on’, and begin applying physical force? No, it does not. And unfortunately, Portland city streets are filled with a variety of mentally ill people, most of whom are non-aggressive – a few of whom who are. And they daily yell horrendous things to passersby. Remember this, mentally ill people may be hearing things and seeing things you and I are not. Reasoning, deterring, and communicating with them the way you might your normal street thug is not a reliable plan.

When you feel threatened, control distance. Make space between yourself and the threat. And teach those you love to do the same. If you can’t make distance, put something between you and the threat, a car, a door, a weapon. Then dial 911, and let the professionals and first responders of this city deal with mentally unstable, aggressive, and potentially dangerous people. And please, teach those you love to do the same.

  • Note: special thanks to SBG coach Paul Sharp for his thoughts on this topic.