Notes From the Margins…

The Chapel Hill Murders

  • February 12, 2015
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There are times when one feels numbed into a stupefied sense of inevitability by the routine flow of horrors that churns through the mass media on an almost daily basis.   But the murders of the three North Carolina Muslim students Deah Barakat, his wife Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha and her sister Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha two days ago on a North Carolina campus was not one of those moments.

That three bright lives should have been extinguished in such an utterly brutal and pointless manner is a testament to the perennial savagery of our species, and its boundless capacity for vindictive hatred that is so often present just beneath the veneer of civilization.

For anyone to have been killed in this way is an absolute unforgiveable horror, but for three people who had so much to give, and were already giving, to be wiped out like this is unutterably sad and shameful.   Muslim Americans of Arab descent, they wanted to make the world a better place and even in the short time they spent on earth they tried to do so with their actions.

In   America, they provided free dental supplies to homeless people.   They also gave free dental care to Palestinians.   Yusor Mohammad had been to Turkey to offer dental care to Syrian refugees, and she was planning to return this year to run a dental clinic for refugees with her husband.   Razan Mohammad had worked with a charity providing help to deaf Muslim children.

And now they have been   ‘murdered execution style’ by yet another of the creepy little white men who seem to abound in America, who stalk parking lots in search of fights and confrontations, who post pictures of their guns and dream of some act of violent extermination to expurgate the accumulated bitterness and hatred that has turned their inner lives into something petrified and rancid.

When the murders first became known the seeming indifference of the media aroused a storm of outrage on the twittersphere.     Some tweets questioned whether   this slow reaction was due to the fact that the three victims were Muslims.     Others suggested that the murders would have provoked an entirely different response if the perpetrator had been a Muslim, and turned the hashtag #Muslimlivesmatter into a meme.

This response was entirely logical.   In our terror-fixated world,   any act of violence involving Muslims in Europe or the States invariably provokes the question of whether or not it was an act of terrorism.     If the answer is yes, then other inevitable questions follow about Islam and Muslims, about the moral complicity of the ‘Muslim community’ and whether or not Muslims are doing all they can to prevent such actions, etc,etc.

Given the question mark that seems to hover over all Muslims when such actions take place, it was not surprising that Muslims and non-Muslims should ask questions of their own about the delay of some hours before the Chapel Hill story became a major news item – an outcome that was partly a reaction to the social media campaign.

It is difficult to believe that such a delay would have occurred had three people been murdered ‘execution-style’ by a Muslim.     In addition Craig Stephen Hicks’ Facebook page carried a number of statements regarding his atheist views that seemed to present a possible motive for focusing his anger on Muslims, such as his assertion that ‘Praying is pointless, useless, narcissistic, arrogant, and lazy; just like the imaginary god you pray to.’

Even though these statements were not specifically aimed at Muslims, it may be that the proximity of two Muslim women wearing hijabs presented an easily available object of Hicks’ loathing of all religions.   But it is also possible that his hatred was more focused.       The father of the two sisters told the Raleigh Observer that his daughter and her husband had been harassed   by Hicks before, wearing a gun in his belt, and that she had complained only the previous week about her ‘ hateful neighbor’ who ‘ hates us for what we are and how we look.’

Yusor Mohammad’s best friend Amira Ata has described Hicks showing up at her apartment with a rifle when she was playing Risk, to complain about the music being too loud:

‘I don”t know if I believe she was targeted for her beliefs. I don”t think so I think the shooter, Craig Steven Hicks, is just an angry person. I know Yusor didn”t do anything to him there”s no way she could have said even one thing wrong to him because she doesn”t get mad. She never says anything back even if someone yells at her. Her husband is even nicer, her sister is even nicer none of them would have said anything to make someone that angry.’

She nevertheless asked, not without reason:

‘If it wasn”t a hate crime, what was it? If you have a problem with your neighbors, you write a letter; you don”t shoot people. I think they were targeted because they were different. He was always so annoyed with them for little things.’

Hicks’ wife, on the other hand,   has insisted that the killings ‘had nothing to do with religion’ but were related to his ‘longstanding parking disputes’ with his neighbors.   Hicks’ Facebook page certainly doesn’t reference some of the names that one might expect to find in Anders Breivik, say, with a list of likes that includes Richard Dawkins, the Huffington Post and the Southern Poverty Law Centre, and LGBT Worldwide.

This extensive list suggests that Hicks was concerned about a lot of things, and was angry about a lot of things.   But in the end it may be that all he cared about was a parking space.   Or perhaps he cared that Muslims had taken up a parking space.   Or maybe he just wanted to kill three Muslims.   Or perhaps he just wanted to kill someone.

Whatever the answer, a man like that should not have been allowed anywhere near a gun, and so far that is pretty much the only thing that is clear about this ghastly and almost incomprehensible tragedy.   I hope that an investigation will finally uncover the motive for it, but right now, I want to remember the three people whose smiling faces in a photograph were the first thing that jumped into my mind when I woke up last night.

I want to remember their youth, their promise, and their dreams of a better world.   I want to remember the young man Deah Barakat, standing with his smiling wife, who   tweeted in January ‘It’s so freaking sad to hear people saying we should “kill Jews” or “kill Palestinians”. As if that’s going to solve anything.’

In September Barakat posted the following message on a YouCaring fundraising site to raise money for his trip to Turkey:

‘We”ll be doing extractions, fillings, root canals and oral hygiene instruction to those most in need… Let”s relieve their pain. If you want to make a difference in the life of a child most in need, then I urge you to take advantage of this opportunity.

Many people with their talents and abilities do nothing but try to get rich.   But these were lives already dedicated to healing and helping others. I want to celebrate that, and mourn their loss, and express my solidarity with their families and those who knew them.

And I want to   take what inspiration I can find from the humanity, optimism and immense generosity of spirit that they already demonstrated in such abundance,   before the scowling little man with the pistol went next door to perform the single act that he will ever be remembered for.



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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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