It's been a week since three young Muslims were murdered execution-style in their Chapel Hill home. And mainstream news outlets still refuse to call it what it is: an act of terrorism.
Last week, on February 11, 2015, I saw news of a triple murder in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, populating my Twitter feed. I was shocked and eager for more details: I googled “Chapel Hill murder” but I couldn’t find anything. I kept scrolling through my feed as details we are now familiar with, emerged: Three young Muslims—Deah Shaddy Barakat, 23; his wife, Yusor Mohammad, 21; and her sister, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19, were murdered in their own home, execution style, by their neighbor, Craig Stephen Hicks.
I spent all night trying to find a single major news story on the attacks, but every bit of information I found was on Twitter. Of course, I knew very well why the story wasn’t getting much coverage, but I tried to remain optimistic. Perhaps this time, the media would get it right and Muslim lives would matter as much as a white person’s.
As a Black Muslim woman (I call this being a triple threat), I know a thing or two about how much—or really, how little—my life is valued in comparison to others. It’s a fact I’ve been socialized to accept through a history of marginalization and micro-aggressions. I’m reminded almost daily of this sad reality when it takes days to find stories about the Boko Haram massacre of thousands of people in one day, because the media preferred to give front-page coverage to the 17 killed in Paris. I’m reminded when a movie about an American sniper, who relished the death of Iraqi “savages,” and who is quoted to have wanted to “kill more,” is nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture. And I’m reminded when the murder of three innocent Muslims is not just a tragedy, but a sobering reminder of what could happen to me for merely existing. Despite what I’ve been shown, I remain hopeful that in the event someone dies at the hands of bigotry or racism, they’ll be seen as a human.
As the gruesome details behind the Chapel Hill deaths continued to unfold over the next 24 hours, my initial optimism at how the events would be reported was all but gone. Although the names of the victims were released and the murderer was apprehended (and has since been indicted), the mainstream media coverage was stingy: I was only able to track down local news reports, and some brief articles on CNN’s website. Unlike with the Charlie Hebdo killings in Paris a month earlier, there was no rush to call the assailant a terrorist or his actions a hate crime—in fact, they have yet to do so. Why would they, he’s a White man, and we’ve yet to see a White American man be called a terrorist, even when he’s committed a terrorist act, right here on American soil, on his neighbors. Instead, the mainstream news outlets were clamoring to justify his actions, claiming his motive was over a parking dispute. For the first time, I saw the wife of an assailant hold a press conference to defend her husband’s crime by reducing the issue to the victims’ being at the wrong place at the wrong time. As if being home with your family is a misfortune, and being murdered for the crime of being Muslim is something you should expect.
Muslims have been increasingly dehumanized to the point where our deaths warrant no real justification. When innocent Muslims are killed on the other side of the world by drones, they’re considered “collateral damage.” Similarly, a parking dispute indicates there are two or more parties fighting over something, as if there were a conflict that escalated and could have been avoided. Which, it appears, there wasn’t. Not that killing someone over a parking spot is a rational means to resolve a dispute. This reeks of something far greater than parking—is that really something that would rile up a person to go to a family’s home and execute three Muslim people, at close range?
It’s exhausting and feels almost cliché for me to bring up points that have been made time and time again on the internet, but still have yet to be made on the news, that a White man on a shooting rampage is acting alone, sad, deeply troubled, and deranged, while a Muslim who commits the same crime is a terrorist with no justification. If three White kids had been murdered, the president would have made a statement right away; if it were a white person, we’d have had around-the-clock news coverage.
There’s a reason these points are made repeatedly, why they’ve come to be cliché: Because it’s so easy to accept how deeply our daily lives are destroyed by Islamophobia. In Muslim communities, vandalism at mosques and Islamic centers is seen as something that just happens sometimes. Just days after the deaths in Chapel Hill, an Islamic center in Texas was burned to the ground in an arson attack. As recently as this past January, government officials are still advocating for the mass surveillance of Muslims in New York City. I anticipated violence on Muslims soon after the Charlie Hebdo attacks—and sadly, my instincts weren’t off. Because suddenly, the same White liberals who stood in solidarity with the French, championing human lives and the freedom of the press went silent because, as ever, we had it coming.
I don’t doubt the Chapel Hill murderer had issues beyond being hateful. But what enrages me is that we’re taught to focus on how victims of oppression might have been the cause of their demise. For those of us who are at the other end of White supremacy, there’s always a rush to justify the oppressor before we consider the innocent lives that were lost because of it. As I get older, I try to hold on to my optimism, in hopes that maybe next time, the narrative will change. Except that I also live in dread knowing there will be a next time. Because there is always a next time.
Sarah Hagi is this week’s guest columnist.
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