Notes From the Margins…

The Chapel Hill Murders

  • February 12, 2015
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There are times when one feels numbed into a stupefaction by the horrors that churn 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 young people who had so much to give, and had already given much, should 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 just that.

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

Now they have been  ‘murdered execution style’ by yet another of the violent little white men who seem to abound in America.

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

In our terrorism-fixated world, any act of violence involving Muslim perpetrators tends to be described as terrorism, and such acts are generally followed by discussions about about Islam and Muslims in general, 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 why it took so long for the Chapel Hill story to become a major news item – or why the hashtag #Muslimlivesmatter should become a twitter meme.

It’s difficult to believe that such a delay would have occurred had three people been murdered ‘execution-style’ by a Muslim.   Craig Stephen Hicks’ Facebook page carried a number of statements professing atheist views that seemed to present a possible motive for focusing his anger on Muslims.

Even though these statements were not specifically aimed at Muslims, it may be that two Muslim women wearing hijabs presented an easily available object of Hicks’ loathing of all religions.   But it ‘s also possible that his hatred was more focused on Muslims.   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:

“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 has insisted that the killings “had nothing to do with religion” but to  “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, the Southern Poverty Law Centre, and LGBT Worldwide.

Whatever motivated Hicks to kill his neighbours, 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 tragedy.

Perhaps the trial and investigation will 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, 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 on a 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, education 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 take inspiration from their humanity, optimism and generosity,   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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