I met Taliesin Myddrin Namkai-Meche when we were students together at Reed College. He was the kind of person you couldn’t say enough nice things about. With his golden hair, thick beard and gentle eyes, he was about as threatening as a sunflower. He had nothing but smiles and kind words for everyone, and his mind was sharp and witty, at once playful and analytic. A bit of a math whiz, he graduated from Reed last year with a degree in economics.
Last Friday afternoon, I texted Taliesin to see what he was up to and to ask if he wanted to hang out that night. I received no reply. The next day, I learned that he was one of two men who had been fatally stabbed on Portland’s MAX train at the hands of an enraged white supremacist.
Taliesin, along with 53-year-old Army veteran Rick Best and 21-year-old Micah Fletcher, had intervened when the angry assailant aimed a hateful, threatening tirade at two innocent young women, one of whom wore a hijab. He protected vulnerable people with a compassionate heart and refused to stay silent in the face of hatred. He did the right thing, the brave thing, and for that, he lost his life.
Taliesin is, and will forever be, a hero and a role model. He did exactly what all of us would hope to do in his place—an act that required tremendous courage and compassion. I understand why people have been quick to adopt his story to condemn bigotry and Islamophobia, but in politicizing his death so quickly, we have left little room for grief.
On the advice of my family members, I gathered myself on the night after Taliesin’s death to attend a so-called candlelight vigil at the site of the attack. I say “so-called” not because the vast majority of attendants were candle-less, nor because the sun was still up as we gathered. (The event had been shifted to an hour earlier than originally planned so that the Muslim community could come to grieve before breaking fast on the second night of Ramadan.)
Rather, I do not call the event a vigil because it wasn’t one. I’ve been to more memorial services than anyone my age should have to endure, and they all had two things in common: They commemorated the lives of the deceased, and the people in attendance were generally solemn. What I attended wasn’t a memorial service for my friend. It was a political rally.
As I approached the large crowd gathered near the site of Taliesin’s murder, I found myself swatting away political pamphlets. I shuffled through the congregation to find a place where I could hear the service, but the crowd was filled with people paying little attention to the speakers. Instead, they were casually talking about fascism and Donald Trump, asking each other about the rallies they had been to and soliciting attendees for future rallies, flyers in hand. I strained to hear the speakers, only catching a word here and there. Everyone was talking about white supremacy, and every once in a while, the crowd would erupt in an antifascist chant.
Maybe I missed it, but I did not hear the name “Taliesin” mentioned by anyone in the crowd, except for those teary-eyed friends and family members who recognized him not just as martyr, but as a brother, son and friend. As someone who really cared about the person who had died, who was close to Taliesin and would have to endure his absence, a rally was not what I needed. So I left.
I felt guilty leaving my friend’s memorial, but I also couldn’t stand the feeling that most people were not really there to celebrate or remember or grieve the lives of those who had perished. They seemed all too eager to place the tragedy within their political narratives, to reduce an incredible person to a political casualty, and to use his death to condemn their political enemies as monsters.
I do not mean to disavow the political beliefs expressed at the vigil or in the op-eds and social media posts that have circulated in the aftermath of this tragedy. Taliesin certainly condemned racism and white supremacy, and like him, I stand with Muslims and other minorities facing oppression. I also do not blame people for experiencing the tragedy differently than I do. They didn’t know Taliesin. They only know what happened on that train, so they see his death not as the loss of a close friend, but as a symptom of the disease afflicting our political body, and as a demonstration of our failure to ensure the health, peace, and safety of our community.
They’re right, of course. The causes of this horrible event are political, and we must address them in order to prevent further bloodshed. And Taliesin truly is a martyr for love and peace and compassion. But I must insist that we lose something if we take this approach too quickly. When our first words for the dead are diatribes rather than eulogies; when we are too busy pointing fingers to join hands in grief; when we forget to speak the names of the dead because we are already crying revolution, then our humanity has been diminished.
Two people died painful, bloody deaths on that train, and another was critically wounded. Not liberals or leftists or radicals—people. That is the tragedy. Before we use them and their misfortune to reassert our political identities, maybe we ought to come together not as political allies, but as human beings, to recognize the loss. No one should suffer the fate of my friend or his family, and we must acknowledge that fundamental truth before we begin to blame our adversaries and script our rally chants.
By taking the time to genuinely honor and remember the lives lost in Friday’s attack, and to grieve the tragic loss of human life to hatred and violence, we can put our political polarization on pause, and reestablish our collective commitment to the values that are supposed to bind all Americans: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We can pay tribute to the heroism of the fallen men, and the unbelievable love and compassion that moved them in their final moments. We can invite even those who disagree with us to share in this grief, and to witness the horror that finds us when we forget our shared humanity. We can remember that we are all human, and that we have to take care of each other.