Like most American holidays, the story of Memorial Day is about something simple -- decorating the graves of our many war dead, and pausing to remember their sacrifice -- and also something more complicated. The commemoration gained currency during the latter 19th Century, as citizens struggled to come to terms with both the staggering numbers of their loved ones and neighbors who died fighting other U.S. citizens in the Civil War, and also with what it meant to be an American in a nation of immigrants.
In the years since World War II, America's relationship with war has grown even more complex. In a time of global empire and a powerful, amorphous national security state, the reasons our leaders choose to fight are often murky, and can (and should) provoke spirited debate. Yet maybe because of that, the virtues of the everyday men and women who serve in these conflicts stand out in even starker relief. Yes, the reasons we fight in places like Iraq and Afghanistan are a mess, but the reason that young men and women fight and die are simpler -- more human and arguably more virtuous. Brotherhood and sisterhood with their fellow soldiers and sailors. A sense of right and wrong, and that the notion that fundamental American values -- basic things like freedom to speak and to write, to worship and to vote -- are worthy of the ultimate sacrifice. Those are the values we honor this Memorial Day.
It's struck me over the last decade that typically the sanest voices on America's great debates -- not just on military policy -- are people who served in places like Afghanistan or Iraq. It seems like there's nothing that raises the stakes on what it means to be a citizen higher than serving in the military, even among those who did not see combat. I was thinking about that this weekend while brooding about the recent violent and unconscionable deaths of two remarkable men. Ricky Best was a retired Army veteran who served 23 years. Richard Collins III was only 23 years old, just commissioned as an Army lieutenant, with his whole life ahead of him. Both gave their lives not in a foreign war but here on U.S. soil -- the victims of arguably the gravest threat this nation faces today, which is irrational hatred and extremism. Like the millions who came before them, Best and Collins died standing up for American values.
Ricky Best served his country quietly and well. In 2012, the Oregon native retired from his long stint in the Army as a platoon sergeant who had worked in Corps maintenance. Two years later, he ran as a Republican for county commissioner in Clackamas County, Ore., telling the newspapers he didn't like some of the things he was seeing, including incumbent commissioners who'd voted themselves a pay raise. Rather than just complain, he said, he decided to do something -- even though his sense of virtue would not allow him to solicit campaign donations. "I can't stand by," he said, "and do nothing."
Those words echoed loudly on a crowded commuter train in Portland, Ore., on Friday night, packed with people headed home to start Memorial Day weekend. Ricky Best was one of them; he worked for the city of Portland, now, and he was looking forward to spending the holiday with his three teenaged daughters and his young son.
But on that train, another white passenger irrationally started verbally attacking two female Muslims, one of whom was wearing a hijab. Best had no way of knowing that the man -- later identified as 35-year-old Jeremy Joseph Christian -- had a history of posting extremist, hateful views towards others on social media, voicing support for white supremacy and praising Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh.
All that Best, and at least a couple of his fellow passengers, knew at that moment was that the anti-Muslim harassment was vile and needed to stop. Once again, he could not stand by and do nothing. But when the men tried to intervene, Christian abruptly pulled out a knife and stabbed Best and two of the others. The Army veteran died almost instantly, while 23-year-old Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche died later in the hospital. A 21-year-old who also intervened was seriously wounded.
It's hard to imagine a more senseless killing -- until you try to understand the death of Richard Collins III. An ROTC cadet at Bowie State University in Maryland, Collins was supposed to receive his diploma this past week. Instead, the newly minted officer -- who was following his father and a grandfather into military service -- was eulogized in a flag-draped coffin.
On May 20, Collins had been visiting friends at the University of Maryland and waiting with two pals for a bus home at 3 a.m. when a stranger abruptly told him to move and -- when Collins refused to comply -- then pulled out a knife and fatally stabbed him in the chest. It's not clear what motivated Collins' assailant, a 22-year-old University of Maryland student named Sean Christopher Urbanski.
But Collins was an African American while Urbanski, who is white, was active on a white supremacist webpage called "Alt-Reich: Nation," which -- according to the University of Maryland police chief -- showed "extreme bias against women, Latinos, members of the Jewish faith and especially African Americans." The FBI is probing the killing as a possible hate crime.
Ricky Best and Richard Collins III both gave their lives in an undeclared war over the same ideals that their forerunners died fighting for on Omaha Beach or in Fallujah. A world where freedom from intolerance defeated bigotry and hatred. A world where people are free to pursue their religious and spiritual beliefs without fear. The only difference is that in 2017 we are fighting these battles here at home, and the struggle must engage us all.
That's why it's also worth noting the ultimate sacrifice of Namkai-Meche. Some have already tried to find a kind of irony in the fact that a Republican Army vet and something of a hippie out of ultra-liberal Reed College found themselves together in the end, standing up to another man's blind hated. I don't find it ironic at all. It's a reminder that for every American who falls into the trap of prejudice and hatred, there's an army of good people among us ready to fight for what is right.
It's also more than a little frustrating that our troops right now have a commander-in-chief with plenty of time to tweet about his perceived enemies in the free press, but who has said nothing -- so far -- about either of these despicable hate crimes. As noted earlier, the everyday grunts often have more nobility than their leaders. Remember that this weekend, and try to find a few quiet moments to remember Ricky Best and Richard Collins III, two American heroes.