As we honored and remembered over the Memorial Day weekend so many who have died for justice and freedom, I found myself inordinately haunted by the Portland, Ore., stabbing of three men who came to the defense of two young women being bullied and harassed, allegedly by a white supremacist hurling anti-Muslim slurs. Two of the men died in the attack. The third was hospitalized in serious condition.
I nominate these three men — heroes all — for the Presidential Medal of Freedom. This medal, the highest civilian award given in the United States, recognizes those who have made “especially meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.”
I nominate these three heroes because President Trump has a moral obligation to recognize them as martyrs in the battle for human rights. Good Samaritans who spontaneously rose up against hateful bigotry and harassment, these men placed themselves in harm’s way in defense of strangers. Two paid the ultimate price: Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche was a recent Reed College graduate in economics who had his whole life before him; Ricky John Best served this country in the U.S. Army for 23 years and was a devoted husband and father. Micah Fletcher, still recovering from his wounds, is a poet who won a 2013 competition with a poem against anti-Muslim prejudice.
Inominate these three heroes because Trump has a moral obligation to counteract the dangerous way in which he has fanned the flames of racism and xenophobia. In fall 2015, white nationalist Matthew Heimbach wrote: “Donald Trump is blowing the dog whistle for White racial interests harder than any other candidate.” In 2016, the incidence of hate crimes rose 23.3 percent, according to Brian Levin of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University at San Bernardino. Now, as the Trump administration overtly targets Muslims and other immigrants for vilification, the dog whistle has become a siren.
On Monday, Trump did state in his presidential Twitter account (@POTUS) that the attack was “unacceptable.” But Twitter commentary does not substitute for leadership, not on an issue of this magnitude, and it is worth noting that Trump didn’t bother to mention the incident to the 30,000,000 followers of his personal Twitter feed (@realDonaldTrump), a nuance that telegraphs the priorities of this administration.
If the price of freedom is eternal vigilance, so is the price of equality. When leaders normalize racism and bigotry, society can be quick to follow suit. This hideous hate crime will leave a terrible psychic scar on the families of the victims and on the nation, but it has also created a teachable moment. No award can heal the damage done by such a monstrosity, but by conveying the highest civilian honor on these beautiful individuals, the Trump administration can honor three shining examples of American values at their best.