How does a community react to someone so disturbed and deranged as Jeremy Joseph Christian?
Someone so unpredictable? Whose politics were so apparently confused and extreme, all at once? A person who has been disowned and disavowed by just about every political faction in America, including white nationalists?
How do we even begin to understand what would influence a man to harness such an extreme mindset in the first place? A man whose most recent Facebook cover photo is an aerial shot of the aftermath of the Jonestown Massacre, where nearly 900 people killed themselves at the behest of their charismatic leader, Jim Jones? A man who bragged about being a nihilist? Who has been labeled so many things, even though just about none of the labels—other than horrible—really fits upon further examination?
For example, the left was quick to label Jeremy Joseph Christian a Trump supporter, but Christian himself claims he did not vote for Donald Trump (in fact, he labeled him “fast poison” as compared to Hillary) and there was a lack of any evidence, besides a Brietbart “like”, that he was associated with anything to do with the Trump Train or traditional alt-right media outlets.
And here are some other things that Jeremy Joseph Christian had considered or showed an interest in at one point:
– Bernie Sanders
– Jill Stein
– Lopping off the heads of people who circumcised children
– A plan for American balkanization
In other words, he was pretty much a smorgasbord of ideas across the spectrum (many of them extreme), so why should he be considered the product of any one camp? Did the alt-right create him? Did the Bernie Bros influence him? Was it Jill Stein who is responsible? Donald Trump? The anti-circumcision lobby? Was it even politics or ideology that influenced his prior criminal record? What about the kidnapping? How does that factor in?
And the same is true about him on the night he stabbed those three men. While initial reports said his tirade was primarily anti-Muslim, Portland Police Sgt. Pete Simpson said he was “yelling various remarks that would best be characterized as hate speech toward a variety of ethnicities and religions” and he was “talking about a lot of different things, not just specifically anti-Muslim.”
The problem is, unlike ideologues or religious extremists, there is no single book one can point to in order to understand Christian’s worldview. He wasn’t a Marxist. Nor was he really, truly alt-right. He didn’t receive his direction from any known network of religious extremists. And Christian certainly wasn’t inspired to kill random strangers because of any American politician. Bernie hasn’t called for such behavior, nor has Donald Trump. There are no easy explanations. One would have to read many books across the political spectrum, shuffle them around, and then attempt to stitch together something that looked like what may have been going on inside of Christian’s head. And even then one would probably be wrong, with the exception of the fact that we know Christian wanted to practice his right to offend just about everyone, under the auspices of the 1st Amendment. And that is so because Christian is an extreme person, not a coherent one. He is a jumbled mess. He is fringe. Rare by definition. And thank god for that.
Which is why I am confused why Portland Mayor Todd Wheeler is calling on the federal government to revoke the permits of two right wing political events that are unrelated to Jeremy Joseph Christian, with the exception of the fact that both appear to be standing up for free speech? He says, “My concern is they’re coming here to peddle a message of hatred and bigotry.” But “hatred and bigotry” are not illegal—even though many people think, or want to believe, they are—assuming the mayor is even accurate in his portrayal of the events.
And if divisive messaging is the mayor’s concern, then why stop with alt-right events? Are they not but one of many political movements in America that have irresponsibly pitted groups against groups, often with little evidence but strong emotion? What about Black Lives Matter? Have not some BLM leaders been called out for their own form of bigoted and highly charged political speech? If the Mayor would like examples, I’d be happy to provide them.
Perhaps the mayor will justify his call for censorship because he believes organized protests caused Christian to murder those men? But Christian was not at an organized rally, he was on a train, so it would be hard to reference as the cause of a behavior something that was not even relevant during the commission of the crime. Then maybe the mayor thinks it was not the events themselves, per se, but the general right to freedom of extreme speech that caused Christian’s behavior, because Christian was quite clearly engaging in all forms of offensive speech. But it’s a leap to draw a connection between a right to say something and actually committing murder. Besides, isn’t it better to know what folks like Christian are thinking, than to be caught totally off guard?
And if the mayor were to blame a political right available to all Americans, he must first take into account the fact that the vast majority of people don’t behave like Christian. So even if Christian’s political rights were a factor, they only seem to matter with rare individuals who display highly emotional and unstable characteristics (and even those individuals rarely act out in such a hideous manner). The mayor should be used to this way of nuanced, statistical thinking given that he probably also believes Islamic terrorism is a low probability event that has nothing to do with Islam. And he almost certainly would not have supported, if asked, the recent calls to no platform Women’s March organizer Linda Sarsour, whose critics said advocates for “boycotts against Jewish businesses in Israel and random acts of violence against the innocent,” because to him, Sarsour is more emblematic of left feminism than she is of anything to do with hate speech and biased words. In other words, to him, I’m guessing, Linda is part of the home team. So less scrutiny there, I’m sure.
Perhaps then, if it wasn’t protests or freedom of speech specifically, it was just the atmosphere of division that caused Christian to lash out in violence against three innocent lives, killing two of them. While that may be closer to the truth, at least on one level, there is still much to be known about cause and effect here. Determining causation is not easy to do, at least in any serious sense. Note, here I differentiate between the average person confusing causation with patterns (or the appearance of causation), and actual statistical causation (real causation that actually caused something). Often times, determining causation is far more complicated than pattern matching. The Mayor is ostensibly saying that free speech causes violence by seeking the censorship of some political protest in the wake of this event (he would not censor said events in the aftermath of a volcanic eruption or bad weather), so we must contend with the mayor’s own thesis that the events must be censored, because too much free speech in Portlandia causes people to murder.
And while we are having this “speech/belief causes behavior” discussion, what about Islamic political groups? After all, have you not read the Quran lately? There is good reason to believe many individuals have acted out in violence upon reading the words of that book, and although some may disagree that Quranic doctrine causes antisocial behavior (like terrorism), that’s hardly an argument for why the mayor should not cast a wider net in his campaign to tone down the political atmosphere in Portland, because if speech/belief doesn’t cause behavior there, it probably doesn’t cause behavior anywhere. Hence, behavior is random or influenced only by macro level forces, and suppression of speech would do very little to accomplish anything at all. So the mayor might just as well censor everyone, because it doesn’t matter anyway.
Furthermore, one could just as easily argue that Christian’s incoherent worldview did not cause his behavior so much as that his life history (including variables such as his genes + environment) culminated in an inevitable tragedy. The point here is not to obfuscate the causes, but to highlight that there are probably more than one, and a reactionary response is likely to be unproductive and result in far more harm than good.
But it seems the mayor has already determined causation, and as it turns out—by sheer coincidence that nobody would have seen coming ever—the source happens to be the mayor’s political opposites. It’s funny how in an indifferent and uncaring universe, all 7 billion of us just happened to luck into a storyline where it’s always our rivals who are wrong and evil. In fact, the mayor, so distraught and unable to cope with the rights of others, has called upon what would normally be his political opponent, Donald Trump (or his surrogates in high places), and asked that he or they withdrawal the rights of those the mayor deems inappropriate for Portland.
Once again, the mayor is seeking to normalize a behavior via a man who would, quite happily, censor the hell out of all of the mayor’s favorite stars if he could, because the mayor of Portland is unable to, in this time of grieving for that community, demonstrate resolve (or a spine) and carry on defending the fundamental protections that have resulted in many of the civil rights the mayor, I’m almost certain, cares so deeply about! (See free speech and the Civil Rights Movement, for starters.)
How slapdash and careless, negligent and haphazard. Amidst this environment, during these times, the liberal Mayor of Portland would rather acquiesce to the Censor’s Pen than, I don’t know, actually lead the city out of this time of morning in a manner that would celebrate the very rights Jeremy Joseph Christian so ignorantly and eagerly misunderstood. Instead, we have here the Mayor of Portland, the Censor’s Stooge, calling on Federal Authorities to, amidst a tragedy, freeze those most basic of American rights. Of the many ways that the Mayor could react, he takes a knee and bows his head in the direction of authoritarian dreams, and minority/under privileged nightmares.
In terms of the question I started this post with, how should a community react in the face of something as tragic as Jeremy Joseph Christian—the Mayor of Portland is doing it all wrong. While there are no easy answers, and I certainly don’t have them, one thing I can say is that whatever the answer, it’s almost certainly not restricting the rights of political protest we find abhorrent, because, as per the ACLU, if we do, “it won’t be long before the speech of people we support will be under attack.” And that would be a shame, because so many movements the Mayor supports would be at risk in environments far less like Portlandia and far more like, oh, I don’t know, the Deep American South. But maybe the Mayor hasn’t thought that far ahead. Myopia is the dagger that has killed many a good things.