Within hours, the Chapel Hill murders were subjected to competing arguments about whether the tragedy was a ‘hate-crime’ against Muslims or an ‘ordinary’ crime in which the religious identity of the victims was not a major factor. The case against was presented at its most extreme by leading voices amongst the American conservative/’counterjihad’ movement, whose instant reaction was to deny or play down any suggestion that the three victims were killed because they were Muslims.
At Frontpage Magazine and Jihad Watch, they described Craig Stephen Ricks a lone psycho or as a leftist or an ‘angry leftist’ because of some of the Likes in his Facebook page. In fact Ricks’ list is far too varied to reach any such conclusions, and this reductionist ‘explanation’ for the murders has three essential purposes a) to deflect any possibility that the murders might have been an anti-Muslim hate crime and b) because calling Ricks a ‘leftist’ makes it possible to smear any of the organizations and individuals that he included in his list in addition to anyone else you can manage to attach to them.
From a very different perspective, there have been attempts to categorize the murders not merely as hate crime but as an act of ‘terrorism’, from critics of the initially muted media response to the killings and the similarly indifferent response to them from American politicians. The Palestinian Authority has described the killings as terrorism and there is even a Facebook page called ‘ The Craig Hicks is a Terrorist Community’ which has nearly 6,000 Likes.
The ‘angry leftist’ and ‘lone psycho’ suggestions are predictable and contemptible. They did the same thing with Anders Breivik, despite the clear political intentions behind his crimes – and the fact that his general attitude to Muslims and Islam were identical to their own. For the likes of Frontpage, Robert Spencer only Muslims hate, and there can never be Muslim victims, unless they were killed by Muslims.
So far there is no evidence that Ricks was like Breivik, which doesn’t mean that it wasn’t a hate crime. That hatred of some kind was an element in these killings is undeniable. Even in America, you don’t simply murder three people in cold blood just because you think someone took your parking space was usurped. But I don’t think it is useful or helpful to categorize the murders as an act of terrorism, as some have argued.
I actually don’t see what purpose it serves to try and get these murders categorized in this way. Terrorism is a notoriously slippery and often subjective term, which governments use again and again to their own advantage. We all know this. In theory the term applies to acts of violence with a political objective or motivation. In practice it acts a label that can be applied to your enemies or to organizations and individuals that you don’t like.
I don’t want to get into a discussion here about the elastic and often nebulous categorization of ‘political violence’ here, or the endless misuses and contradictions of the term. As far as the Chapel Hill killings are concerned however, there is no evidence so far to suggest that Craig Stephen Ricks was affiliated to any political group, organization or ideology, or that there was any political dimension or motivation to his actions.
Just because he was an atheist doesn’t mean that he was an ‘atheist’ or ‘anti-theist’ terrorist. Just because Muslims are often held collectively responsible for any act of violence against non-Muslims doesn’t mean that Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris should be held responsible for what Ricks did.
And just because governments use the word terrorism to lift acts of violence into a new category of (politically useful) horror, doesn’t mean that critics of this process or those who have been victims of it should do the same. It seems to me perfectly legitimate and even essential to ask whether Islamophobia may have played a part in the murders of three observant Muslims – though that connection has yet to be proven.
It’s entirely valid to highlight the differences between the way the media and politicians responded to these murders and the ways in which they have responded to crimes involving Muslim perpetrators. Because there is little doubt that had the perpetrator been a Muslim these murders would almost certainly have evoked an entirely different response. There is a general reluctance amongst western governments – and the media that generally follows their narratives and priorities – to acknowledge the extent of anti-Muslim violence and prejudice.
This is often coupled with a willingness to treat even the most disparate acts of ‘political’ violence involving Muslims into a single phenomenon of terrorism that is uniquely evil and dangerous.
Critique that by all means. But just because terrorism is used and misused politically by the state, or by Israel, or by ‘counter-jihadists’, or simply by the mainstream media, should not mean that opponents of anti-Muslim prejudice should fall into the trick of trying to ‘reverse’ the term and use it for their own ends.
A vacuous term remains vacuous, regardless of the victims or perpetrators. And calling Hicks a ‘terrorist’ doesn’t make him any worse than he already is, and it doesn’t make the Chapel Hill murders any worse than they already are, and I very much doubt whether it explains these awful crimes.
All it does is attempt to score points, and given that we are talking about the appalling murders of three young people, pointscoring is not appropriate, and has nothing to do with justice.