A few days ago two men were stabbed to death and another barely escaped the same fate on a light rail train in Portland. Their crime? Trying to stop a man from verbally harassing two young women with his anti-Muslim ravings.
The deaths of the two men and the injuries suffered by the third are horrific reminders of the rage and anger that is both too visible and commonplace. Was this racist hate and religious stereotyping always there? Sure. But, now, it seems there is real danger that can instantly erupt with fatal consequences seemingly anywhere.
For several days after the attacks I struggled with the question: What would I have done? Would I have stepped in or waited for someone else? Would I have dialed 911 or hit the emergency stop button to attract official attention? Would I have assumed that his hate would stay verbal and not escalate into physical danger for the young women? Would I have risked my life?
These questions prompted me to think about personal risk and public involvement. Betty and I occasionally take the light rail train from near our home to downtown Phoenix, so the circumstances were quite relatable. What flashes through one's mind in the few seconds you have to make a decision? Does the instinct to protect kick into gear? Does self preservation dominate?
I can only try to answer for me, but I think family concerns would be among my first thoughts. The effect of my serious injury or death upon my family members would be devastating. My loss in such a random and sudden way would be hard to comprehend by all those I love. Would they respond with hate against the person and the situation that triggered this outcome? Would they fall back on their faith and forgive? Would my split second decision make their future more unsure and unhappy?
Most bullies will bluster and verbally try to intimidate, but usually back down from someone else's presence. A punch to the face, maybe a few kicks, certainly words that try to provoke would occur before that person slinked off to a corner. However, as Portland proves, that is not always true. If the bully has a backstory that includes hate group involvement, criminal behavior, drug use, or mental struggles, the confrontation can quickly spin out of control. Of course, all that would be unknown before confronting the hater.
Would instinct simply kick in..the instinct that human beings seem to have to protect others? The response of strangers after a natural disaster, the stories of those who risked everything to protect others during wars, the rush of bystanders to help someone who has fallen or may be trapped in a car after a crash....all speak to something ingrained in us. Would I try to help because I believe in God, because my religious beliefs encourage such actions? That sounds good, but I am not sure such thoughts would be part of my final decision.
Ultimately, I think my involvement would be a gut reaction to seeing something so wrong and wanting it to stop. All the careful weighing of consequences and outcomes, personal costs and pain, and the effect on family, would not be considered. There is no way of knowing what the three men in Portland were thinking when they stepped up to help. But, I'd like to believe they simply saw evil and were compelled to help.
I'd like to think I would have the strength to do the same, but none of us will really know unless we are faced with such a serious choice. And that is what has made the Portland murders so hard to put behind me.