Last week, three Muslim college students in Chapel Hill, North Carolina were savagely murdered in their apartment by 46-year-old Craig Stephen Hicks, allegedly over a dispute regarding parking spaces in the apartment complex wherein they lived. The victims were second-year dentistry student Deah Shaddy Barakat, 23, his wife, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, 21, and her sister, North Carolina State University student Razan Mohammad Abu-Salba, 19. Hicks has been arrested and indicted on three counts of homicide and one count of discharging a firearm in an occupied residence. At this point, there is no formal charge for committing a hate crime.
While there exists a sizable portion of the populous who believe religion was a motivating factor for this shooting, along with another sizable portion of the populous who believes Hicks’ atheism is a fundamentally important aspect to this case, as it stands right now, there is absolutely no evidence that the senseless murder of these three ambitious students had anything to do with their Islamic alignment, nor is there any evidence to support Hicks’ atheism had anything to do with the shooting either. From what is known, and from what has been submitted, Hicks was a disjointed man who was hostile to all of his neighbors, and a dispute over parking spaces ultimately pushed him over the edge.
I have a feeling this is all it will be.
I can’t say with absolute certainty that religion (or even lackthereof) had anything to do with this appalling act of violence, but I can say with certainty that it is fairly irresponsible that the media and the populous vehemently believe it does. They have already found Hicks guilty of perpetrating a religiously-motivated murder, despite having no evidence to support such an accusation. Just because someone targets someone else who may have a different religious philosophy does not inherently mean a hate crime has been committed. Part of the reason why proving hate crimes is difficult is because there has to be irrefutable proof that the targeting of the individual, or in this case, individuals (plural), was justified by the perpetrator because of a racial, religious, gender-based, class-based, or sexuality-based reason. As it stands right now, there is no such justification — especially if Hicks’ Facebook page is any indication, as the man, who despised religion himself, held the philosophy that people should be allowed to believe in whatever they wished.
If all goes well, and public biases in the case do not pervert the jury pool, then this man will be found guilty of his crimes and will be punished accordingly. However, I’m not completely convinced the jury pool will not be tainted, as cases such as this one attract copious amounts of unwarranted attention. A quick Google search at 10:56 pm on February 16, 2015 — “chapel hill shooting hate crime” — yielded plenty of results in which journalists, bloggers, reporters, etc. speculate as to the authenticity of this shooting being motivated by the victims’ religion:
- Slate questions whether the shooting was a parking dispute, a hate crime, or both.
- Al-Jazeera reports that the Federal Bureau of Investigation is probing the incident to determine whether the religion of the victims was a motivating factor for the shooting.
- CNN attempts to get to the bottom of what constitutes a hate crime, using the Chapel Hill shooting as a foundation.
- Fox News reports that the fathers of the victims are demanding the prosecution charge Hicks with a hate crime.
- CBS News is reporting the same thing as Fox.
The five stories above pander to an idea that has generated a lot of buzz around the world (since reporting of the Chapel Hill shooting has reached a worldwide audience): since the victims were practicing Muslims and the shooter was an atheist, then of course the shooting was religiously motivated, and because the shooting was religiously motivated, it is a hate crime. Yet, there is no qualifying evidence that the shooting was motivated by religion. Attention-grabbing headlines, such as the five above — from brands that yield millions of monthly views — do more to distort the facts of the case and provide a train of thought that could have negative repercussions among those who are following the case. This is why for every headline like the ones above in which the public indulges themselves, there should be equal attention given to stories such as this one posted by the BBC.
At the end of the BBC article, Abed Ayoub, the legal and policy director for the American-Arab Discrimination Committee and the creator of the hastag #ChapelHillShooting (which initially judged the shooting a hate crime), is asked whether his quickness to judge the shooting a hate crime undermined the case. He said he felt it did not, as he feels he has “opened the dialogue about the issues we’re facing in this community.” At the beginning of the BBC article is a graphic, shared under #ChapelHillShooting, depicting cultural attitudes toward acts of violence.
I cannot speak on behalf of the entire world, but through my own observation, a very valid point is being made in the BBC article. While I do not believe the Chapel Hill shooting to be religiously motivated, from my observations there exists a disturbingly common lack of understanding pertaining to how acts of violence are judged in American culture. Repeatedly, factions of American culture have called not only for the stoppage of Islamic terrorism, but have even demanded Muslims in the United States and abroad (and incidentally the President) denounce the extremists (even after they already have), and in some even more radical cases, demand American Muslims to declare allegiance to the United States as a way to distance themselves from jihadists. Yet, that same faction, at least collectively, will not even acknowledge information that would join a shooter’s Christian or Jewish religion to a religiously-motivated act of violence, such as when Larry McQuilliams, who was found to have a copy of Vigilantes of Christendom inside of a truck he rented, tried to burn down the Mexican Consulate building in Austin, Texas last year or when George Tiller was, as Ann Coulter masterfully put it, “[terminated]… in the 203rd trimester” by Army of God associate Scott Philip Roeder. This same collective of people never speak out against Israel for atrocities that country commits against Palestinians, but instead wholeheartedly supports them and demonizes those who dare to criticize the nation for its actions. This is the same collective of people who have placed Chris Kyle on a pedestal, despite disturbing comments he made in his autobiography and copious lies he told about killing carjackers, shooting looters in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, and getting into a fight with Jesse Ventura, who then further view any criticism of Chris Kyle to be un-American and/or offensive. This is the same group of people who believe criticism of law enforcement protocol is a war on cops and who believe common sense firearm legislation is the government trying to take their guns away.
This group of people composes a large percentage of the American consciousness, and their arguments do nothing to positively influence what should be a productive conversation on American problems.
Conversations regarding relationships between people of different religions — as well as people of different races, sexual orientations, backgrounds, social classes, etc. — need to be conducted in this country, but there has to be an intellectual and understanding discourse with the subject matter. Essentially, we have to stop demonizing a religion because of a few fringe members who take things too far. So, instead of putting Islam in our cultural cross-hairs, perhaps we should only target the men and women who sin in its name, especially considering that, culturally, we will not do the same thing to Christianity or to Judaism. There must be consistency in what we culturally choose to call a hate crime, and even though I do not feel a hate crime was committed when Craig Stephen Hicks killed three Muslim students in their apartment in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, the reaction to this case provides a perfect opportunity to examine American cultural attitudes and what the populous believes constitutes violence motivated by prejudices.