Portland and Ballabhgarh hate attacks: Remarkable similarities but shameful differences
Within the span of one month, in two commuter trains in two opposite corners of the planet, men acted out their hate against young teenaged children. In both compartments, knives flashed, blood flowed, and people died, only because of the fury of prejudice.
Yet both stories are as different as light is from darkness.
One May 26, in Portland in the US, two young teenaged friends were travelling by train. One was black, the other visibly Muslim as she wore a hijab. Suddenly a white man in his thirties with shoulder length hair racially harangued the two girls. He shouted they did not belong to the country, did not pay taxes, and should go back to Saudi Arabia.
Three men separately approached the enraged man, forming a protective ring between him and the terrified girls. “You guys can’t disrespect these young ladies like that,” they said to him. As they argued, the man got even more infuriated and threatened them.
Just as the girls were trying to get off the train, to their horror they found the man suddenly attack their protectors with a knife. He slit the throats of two of the men, and savagely sliced into the thigh of the third.
One mortally wounded man, 23-year-old college student Taliesin Namkai-Mece fell on the floor of the compartment. A few passengers tried desperately to stem his bleeding. “I am going to die,” he said. As they picked him up, his last words were, “Tell everyone on the train that I love them.”
The second man whose throat was slit was 53-year-old Rick Best, an air force veteran and father of four. He too died on the platform. It was only the third young man, a poet, 21-year-old Micah Fletcher, who survived his injuries in hospital.
There was an outpouring of grief and gratitude from all over the country for these heroes. One of the girls said to KPTV, “They didn’t even know me. They lost their life because of me and my friend and the way we looked and I just to say thank you to them and their family and I appreciate them because without them we probably would be dead right now.”
Less than a month later, on June 24, again on a commuter train, again a Muslim teenager, became the target of hate assaults, this time in India. The boy Junaid Khan, with his brothers Hashim and Shaqir, was returning to his village in Haryana by a local train, after his Eid shopping in the walled city of Delhi. The boys found seats to sit, and began to play Ludo on their phone. At the station Okhla, a large crowd got it. Junaid got up and gave his seat to an old man. A group of men demanded that the other brothers also vacate their seats. When they held on, the men abused them racially, asked them to go to Pakistan, and taunted them for being circumcised. They pulled off their skullcaps, tugged their beards, and thrashed them. They did not let them get off at their station. Instead, as the train sped ahead, they took out knives, and stabbed the three brothers, and threw them off at the next station.
It is remarkable that both these hate attacks at two ends of the planet, in the world’s two largest democracies, in similar ways targeted Muslim teenagers, by men frenzied by majoritarian prejudice. In both, train compartments were sites of violence, and in both knives were used to kill.
Sadly the similarity ends there. In Portland, white co-passengers heroically came to the rescue of the children, and paid for this with their lives. In India, not one passenger helped the boys, and even the old man who Junaid gave his seat joined other passengers in further goading the killers. In the station, no railway staff or shopkeeper came to help the boys even as the youngest one bled to death.
American people were moved by the heroism of the three men, and raised donations of 1.2 million dollars. But Fletcher, the lone survivor, said that the country should really be most worried not about him but the two girls who endured the hate attack. “It is they who need counselling and support to be able to face life with courage,” he reminded his countrymen and women. When he was called to a programme to honour him, he said, don’t make us heroes just for trying to save our children.
In both our countries, feverish politics of hatred are fighting our capacities for love and courage. In both we cannot let hatred win.
Harsh Mander is author, Looking Away: Inequality, Prejudice and Indifference in New India
The views expressed are personal.