What is a mob, actually? We say the word, and tend to think of it as a crowd of people. But a mob is not a crowd; it is a state of mind.… Two or three people, even one can become a mob. —Lillian Smith, novelist and civil rights activist
It was another tragedy in a distrustful, on-edge society steeped in violent confrontation and extra-judicial killing as the solution to whatever ails us.
What motivates these on-the-spot executions? Fear? Resentment? Rage? Disgust? Misbegotten feelings of some sort of imagined superiority: racial, religious, gendered? Maybe just a hair-trigger impulse to strike back decisively at anyone who symbolizes an enemy? Or maybe, at times, the motivation is some terrible combination of any or all of these emotions that results in a desire, as Lillian Smith wrote, to hurt somebody.
There have been so many tragedies lately. Too many.
On February 10, 2015, Deah Shaddy Barakat, 23; his wife Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, 21; and her sister, Razan Mohammed Abu-Sahla, 19, were shot to death—bullets to their heads—in a condominium complex in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. They were Muslim, all pursuing or about to pursue studies at UNC and North Carolina State University.
The person who allegedly shot them was a neighbor, a white man who lived in the same complex, named Craig Stephen Hicks, who turned himself in. He is a self-described “anti-theist.” His social media postings seem to imply that he, while not denying anyone’s right to their own beliefs, would be happiest if all religion “just went away.” It wasn’t the first time he’d wielded a gun in front of neighbors. Many people including his ex-wife, stated he’d held a volatile and generalized sense of grievance for a long time. Maybe in this case—as the police and some of his neighbors claim—it boiled down to a parking issue.
In this narrative, Hicks is an enraged loner, even mentally disturbed. That’s the usual interpretation given to white men with explosive tempers, guns, and bombs who seek to kill and maim others. No particular social significance is given to such actions, whether the killers target students, perhaps even fellow students, in school, a public official, or movie theater patrons. Society then doesn’t have to wrestle with possible racial, religious, or political motives. The message is that there’s very little we can do, aside from harshly punishing them, about such outliers, whose actions are so aberrant.
Others insist the killings were an anti-Muslim hate crime and have called upon local and federal authorities to investigate it as such. Here a terrible animus is clearly named and society can rest assured that the criminal legal system cares about Muslim lives. This narrative also implies that hate crimes are committed by “extremists” whose irrational prejudices are unacceptable to respectable society.
Still others feel this act should be labeled domestic terrorism. By placing the Chapel Hill killings within this framework many progressives imagine that the public will take the killings more seriously.
Which narrative is true? Which can take us closest to the kind of justice that addresses not only individual outbursts but also the underlying causes of violence?
It’s not far-fetched to think that Hicks, angry and aggrieved, didn’t much care for other people. It’s also possible that, like so many others, he consciously or unconsciously internalized successive post-9/11 waves of anti-Islam bigotry and fervor. This fervor is mainstreamed into the training of local and federal law enforcement authorities, amplified by fear and loathing of ISIS, and the one-sidedness of public response to the Charlie Hebdo killings. It resonates throughout political rhetoric, and popular culture. Television shows such as Homeland and feature films such as Zero Dark Thirty and American Sniper simultaneously offer a compelling mixture of fear, demonizing, and justification for doing “anything” to rid ourselves of this enemy.
Yet none of these storylines—disturbed loner, hate crime, or domestic terrorism—is sufficient to provide us with a clear understanding of why these young people were killed. Nor do they bring us close to a more transformative vision of justice. Worse, each of them in some way obscures a more complicated reality.
Individuals do act of their own volition, and many people, including the Chapel Hill killer, do, for reasons of their own, commit terrible acts. But their actions always take place within a larger context. There are no isolated incidents of violence, no isolated killers.
Contrary to common belief this violence is not anathema to respectable society. Throughout American history, vigilante “justice” and animus-based violence against individuals and communities have been accepted, even celebrated. These include genocide against Native peoples, lynching, police killings of unarmed people of color and people with disabilities, the deaths encouraged by “stand your ground” shootings, and torture—by domestic law enforcement and military/national security officials in jails and prisons. Almost all of these actions are the work of ordinary people, respectable people. It is ethical hypocrisy to decry the violence of Chapel Hill while remaining silent about these equally brutal forms of structural violence, to pretend that these multiple forms of violence are not all interrelated.
None of the predominant narratives challenge the deeper culture of violence in which three Muslim people were killed in Chapel Hill. All of these storylines serve to point the finger at some insane or fanatical “other” while absolving the rest of us of further responsibility.
The killer must be held accountable for his actions. But retributive justice neither acknowledges nor addresses the vast backdrop of structural violence in America—including that directed toward Muslims—against which these killings occurred. A vision of justice that holds people accountable for wrongs even as it works to provide healing for all those affected by violence and transform the conditions that helped to produce it demands much more of us.
Only one man pulled this trigger, but we all share some measure of culpability for the larger culture of violence that suffuses our society. James Baldwin once remarked that while he had never actually lynched anyone or dropped the atom bomb, when such violence occurred, he held himself and others responsible for what happens next.
The dominant American imagination is obsessed with the identification, control, and eradication of enemies. It is our responsibility to challenge and transform this belief. The most underutilized political and cultural tool available to us is radical imagination—the human imagination put to the task of creating a shift in consciousness. How can we replace this American ethos with a commitment to care about the well-being of our neighbors—especially those from marginalized groups who are so often treated in dehumanizing ways?
We owe at least that much to Deah Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, and Razan Mohammed Abu-Sahla who, from all accounts, sought to live in good and compassionate relationship with others.
What happens next?
Kay Whitlock and Michael Bronski are coauthors of Considering Hate: Violence, Goodness, and Justice in American Culture and Politics.
Kay Whitlock is a writer and activist who has been involved with racial, gender, queer, and economic justice movements since 1968. She is coauthor of the award-winning Queer (In)Justice: The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States and cofounder and contributing editor for the weekly Criminal Injustice series at CriticalMassProgress.com.
Michael Bronski has been involved in gay liberation as a political organizer, writer, and editor for more than four decades. The author of several award-winning books, including A Queer History of the United States, he most recently coauthored “You Can Tell Just by Looking”: And 20 Other Myths about LGBT Life and People. Bronski is Professor of the Practice in Activism and Media in the Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality at Harvard University.