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Making sense of a senseless act

Friday's horrific scene on a Portland MAX train demonstrated at once the best and the worst of America. And it left us all wondering how to respond.

It showed the best of this country in the actions of three men who moved to intervene when a man began hurling racial and religious epithets at two teenage girls — one black, one Muslim and wearing a hijab.

Those men were Taliesin Myrddin Namkai Meche, 23, an Ashland High School and Reed College graduate; Ricky John Best, 63, a U.S. Army veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan; and Micah David-Cole Fletcher, 21, a Portland State University student.

The man they confronted, Jeremy Christian, drew a knife and stabbed all three. Meche and Best died; Fletcher was severely injured but survived.

Friday evening marked the beginning of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting and prayer. It also marked the beginning of the Memorial Day weekend.

Best, who served 23 years in the Army before retiring, died in the service of his country's ideals on the eve of the weekend set aside to honor those who perished on the battlefield. Meche, too, gave his life in defense of those ideals.

Many seek to place blame in the aftermath of incidents such as these. It would be easy, as some have, to blame President Donald Trump, whose campaign rhetoric seemed to embolden white supremacists such as Jeremy Christian. But that is too easy.

Trump bears some responsibility for catering to the anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim sentiments already present in the American electorate, but suggesting that he personally wants to see violence against Americans is taking it too far. The truth is, those who want to commit violence against their fellow citizens were always here. They are emboldened to act on their hatred not just by campaign rhetoric but by the increasingly bitter divide among all Americans, by the rising tide of anger that does not seem to respond to calls for reason and restraint.

Meche's mother, Asha Deliverance of Ashland, wrote an open letter to Trump on Monday, calling on him to "please encourage all Americans to protect and watch out for one another. Please condemn any acts of violence, which result directly from hate speech and hate groups."

Trump tweeted on Monday — from the official presidential feed, not from his personal account:

"The violent attacks in Portland on Friday are unacceptable. The victims were standing up to hate and intolerance. Our prayers are w/ them."

That's the right response, but it's the bare minimum the president should do to condemn this and all acts of violence motivated by hate.

Local residents who gathered to remember Meche in an Ashland vigil Saturday wondered what they would do in such a situation; what they should do. The answer is, do exactly what Meche and Best and Fletcher did. It will take everyone standing up every time to reverse the momentum of intolerance threatening the ideals that really make this country great.

As for Jeremy Christian, in his first court appearance Tuesday, the accused murderer shouted that his actions were "patriotic," and called on Portlanders to "get out if you don't like free speech."

Whatever the source of his twisted understanding of freedom, Christian should never again enjoy any.