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Richard Falk: Murder in North Carolina

A short interview on interpreting the ghastly murder of three young Muslims living in the North Carolina university town of Chapel Hill.

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Image from Flickr user dax46407

By Richard Falk
By arrangement with Richard Falk.

Prefatory Note: Should such a grisly event be viewed as a tragic response of a deranged neighbor whose emotions took a violent turn after a dispute over parking in their common residential community, or is it better understood as one more indication of the toxic realities associated with the interplay of gun culture and Islamophobia? My responses seek to give reasons for adopting this wider understanding of why such incidents, although horrible on their own, are also bringing death to canaries in the mines of American society. As such the embrace of the movie American Sniper can be seen as another dimension of how “the long war” unleashed after 9/11 to satisfy a range of global ambitions is increasingly casting its dark shadow across the domestic life of the country. We are, indeed, living in a globalizing world where the wrongs done without will be in due course superseded by the wrongs done within. I thank Dan Falcone for his questions that gave me the opportunity to offer these responses.

Dan Falcone: In light of the recent shooting of Muslims in North Carolina, Russian Television was pondering if the killings would have received a quicker, more widespread and more responsive media reaction had the perpetrator been a Muslim, instead of victims, as seen in this case.

Richard Falk: I think there is every reason to believe that the identity of the perpetrator influences the media response and approach taken by the public. If the actors are Muslim, whether linked or not to a political network, there is an aura of suspicion surrounding the crimes committed. In contrast, if the perpetrator is white, and Christian, he will be considered a lone actor suffering a severe mental disorder even if he is shown to have links to wider extremist communities as was the case with Timothy McVeigh and Anders Breivik who engaged in terrorist acts in Oklahoma City (1995) and Norway (2011). The Islamophobic cultural mood predisposes the media and public to incline toward worst case interpretation of Muslim perpetrators and best case scenarios of Christian perpetrators, especially when the victims are Muslim, as is the case for the murder of the three young Muslims in North Carolina (Daele Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Mohammed, and Razan Mohammed Abu-Sahla) being partially trivialized as a “parking dispute” among neighbors.

DF: Electronic Intifada and The New Republic reported on the case relative to what they call, “New Atheism,” a social and political secular movement that tends to use classical liberal views to masquerade the advance of reactionary behaviors. Furthermore, when coupled with neo-conservatism, new atheism cherry-picks which socio-political groups are targeted in the name of freedom. Do you see this as an attempt in double-speak to intentionally cloud the issue?

RF: There may be an element of insight into some particular cases on this basis, but by and large this kind of discourse obscures the far greater relevance of the Islamophobic atmosphere prevailing in the United States and Europe, and also removes from consideration the linkage between overseas American militarism directed at Muslim societies and recourse to extremist behavior by Muslims. Both the views of the Tsarnaev brothers who exploded the bombs at the Boston Marathon and the Dzhokhar brothers who carried out the recent Charlie Hebdo killings in Paris seemed shaped by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and by the Abu Ghraib pictures confirming the torture and humiliation of Muslim prisoners.

Why was Sandy Hook less of a display of a terrorist mindset than that of those who acted in Boston or Oslo?

DF: I noticed many educated readers and citizens and the popular press exhausting ways to explain how the killing of Muslims might not be a hate crime, whereas in the coverage of many killings around the world, there seems to be an automatic subtext anticipated in the first hour of reporting: “No word yet if terrorism played a role.” Does this type of thinking remind you of Edward Said’s work in Unveiling Islam?

RF: Yes, definitely. The journalistic tropes used to describe incidents of this sort, especially the initial take when little has been firmly established, are revealing of underlying cultural biases and self-serving governmental ways of processing sensationalist news. To ignore the Muslim identity of the victims, and explain the behavior of the killer as an exaggerated reaction to a dispute over parking is illustrative of this effort to avoid treating Muslim victimization as an expression of “hate.”

The insertion of a terrorist possibility is immediate and reflexive if the persons accused are Muslim, and avoided if not—even when involving the mass killing of innocent civilians. Why was Sandy Hook less of a display of a terrorist mind set than that of those who acted in Boston or Oslo?

I do not think stressing the links between atheism and extremist violence is helpful as it minimizes attention to the cultural and religious prisms through which political behavior is being predominantly shaped.

DF: New atheism seems to suggest that hate crimes are symmetrical and are both color and religiously blind. Given the fact that all three victims had a Palestinian origin or background will this motivate the United States and take say, Israel to discuss the issue with the most minimal amount of complications? And do you think this tragedy provides the Palestinian community a chance to foster additional solidarity?

RF: I do feel that what is being described as the “new atheism” is bound up with the recent popularity in some circles of the secularist idea that most of the evil in our midst can be blamed on religious belief that fuels fanaticism. Authors such as Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and media impresario Bill Maher all feed such views by adopting reductive views of religion that end up associating religious belief with sociopathic extremism. In one respect, such secular thinking is itself fundamentalist in ways that can result in violent behavior on the part of disturbed individuals. It is worth noticing that Craig Stephen Hicks, the North Carolina killer, was self-described as “a gun-toting liberal” (former auto parts dealer, now studying to be a paralegal professional) proclaiming his hostile attitudes toward religion on his Facebook page, making the fact that two of the victims wore headscarves possibly an element that heightened his lethal anger to the point of uncontrollable rage. That such a person, whose previous erratic was widely known, should be authorized to possess and wield guns in an intimidating fashion is itself a severe indictment of what “the right to bear arms” has come to mean here in America.

I do not think stressing the links between atheism and extremist violence is helpful as it minimizes attention to the cultural and religious prisms through which political behavior is being predominantly shaped, especially with respect to foreign policy. It is likely that there will be a temporary surge of sympathy with those who share an Islamic identity with these victims, and a realization that such politically and culturally tainted crimes are a serious threat to the moral order of the country, including the maintenance of a sense of political community. I doubt that it will translate in any meaningful way into sympathy for Palestinian victimization, which as far as I have been aware is not given much attention in the mainstream reporting of the incident. It is true that the pro-Palestinian boycott groups associated with the BDS campaign have seized upon these events to indicate their solidarity with the victims of the North Carolina crime, as they did earlier with African American victimization in relation to the recent police killings in Ferguson (Michael Brown) and Staten Island (Eric Garner).

Richard Falk is an international law and international relations scholar who taught at Princeton University for forty years. Since 2002 he has lived in Santa Barbara, California, and taught at the local campus of the University of California in Global and International Studies and since 2005 chaired the Board of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.

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