Last year, under the metamorphic pressures of grief, racial tensions, and political opportunism, the image of Michael Brown, hands raised, being murdered for the color of his skin became an unshakeable article of faith for many across the nation — despite the fact that the most reliable evidence suggested a different story entirely.
But inconvenient facts are often trumped by convenient fictions.
The latest example of such comes from none other than President Obama, who has now twice insinuated that the murders of three Muslims in Chapel Hill, N.C., earlier this month were motivated by their religion — a claim for which there is precisely no evidence.
In a statement issued last Friday, the president rightly called the attack “brutal and outrageous,” then added: “No one in the United States of America should ever be targeted because of who they are, what they look like, or how they worship.” Now this week, speaking at the White House’s Countering Violent Extremism summit, the president used the triple-murder to raise concerns about so-called Islamophobia: “Most recently with the brutal murders at Chapel Hill of three young Muslim Americans, many Muslim Americans are worried and afraid.”
Should American Muslims be worried about their safety? That is a separate question, although FBI statistics show that the occurrence of hate crimes against Muslims has been basically static since 2001, and that last year Jews were the victims of 60 percent of all religious hate crimes. In fact, in 2013 there were four times as many crimes committed against Jews as against Muslims.
But even if American Muslims have reason to be on edge, it is not because of the events in North Carolina. Craig Hicks, 46, seems to have gunned down Deah Shaddy Barakat, 23; his wife, Yusor Mohammad, 21; and her sister, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19, following repeated altercations over an apartment-complex parking space.
Yet Hicks’s ire was not exclusively targeted at Barakat and his family. Hicks’s zealous defense of his assigned parking space was a regular source of conflict with neighbors at the Finley Forest condominium complex where he lived. “There were a lot of instances of [Hicks] getting people’s cars towed, being very aggressive toward visitors and residents,” Samantha Maness, a neighbor, told the Raleigh News and Observer. Eventually, Christopher Lafreniere, a tow-truck operator who regularly towed cars from the complex, stopped responding to Hicks’s calls. “It actually got to the point that he was not allowed to call a car in. If he called, we wouldn’t go out.”
Hicks was not uncomfortable about intimidating his fellow residents. Imad Ahmad, Barakat’s roommate until the latter married last December, said that Hicks complained monthly about the pair’s parking habits, and would show up to their door to protest with a gun on his hip — a not-uncommon accompaniment to Hicks’s many noise complaints. He had a rifle in hand when he pounded on Barakat’s door to complain about the noise from a Risk game one evening.
But, according to Maness, Hicks was “very aggressive toward anyone who came, visitors, residents” — so much so that residents organized a meeting to discuss how he “made everyone in the community feel uncomfortable and unsafe.” He exhibited, Maness said, “equal-opportunity anger.”
Hicks was, according to his Facebook page, an atheist and “anti-theist,” who routinely criticized religion online — but, again, he seems to have been an equal-opportunity critic. Responding in 2012 to the proposed construction of a mosque near New York City’s Ground Zero, Hicks wrote, “I hate Islam just as much as Christianity, but they have the right to worship in this country just as much as any others do.”
The victims’ family and some Muslim advocacy organizations (the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, for instance) say that the murders were clearly motivated by his victims’ religious beliefs, and the president seems to agree. But there is no evidence to support that claim.
Craig Hicks’s crime is utterly appalling, and the ongoing police investigation may reveal more about the motives behind it. But the accounts of Hicks’s disturbing conduct toward all of his neighbors, regardless of color and creed, suggest that a deeply troubled man finally snapped. It is disappointing that the president has chosen to opine on an ongoing investigation in a way that is not consonant with the available evidence. And, barring new revelations, it would be downright shameful for him to further commandeer the events in Chapel Hill to bolster his preferred political narrative.
It is no diminution of justice to Hicks’s victims to prosecute their killer simply on the basis of the facts.
— Ian Tuttle is a William F. Buckley Jr. Fellow at the National Review Institute.