Trying to Make Sense of Loss: The Chapel Hill Shootings

On Wednesday, three young Americans were shot, execution style, while in their home. The victims, all under 25 years old, included Deah Barakat, his wife Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha and her sister, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha. All three were well liked and charitable members of the community.

Deah, who studied dentistry, was known for organizing dentistry charity drives both for Syrian refugees in Turkey and his local homeless community. His wife, Yusor, had also volunteered with Syrian refugees while Razan studied architecture and environmental design.

Deah’s father, who arrived at the crime scene while police were still conducting an investigation, can be seen here on video pleading with police to know whether or not his son was alive or dead.

Craig Stephen Hicks, their neighbor and the man who shot them, has not yet given a reason for their murder. Scouring his Facebook page, he seems positively average. Other than being a “militant atheist” (a title he gave himself), he often posted funny pictures of animals, posts in favor of gay marriage and anti-discrimination memes. His wife Karen Hicks referred to him as “championing the rights of others.” Yet below the surface, it seems Hicks was simmering with rage.

Hicks was described as “always angry” by his neighbors, while his ex-wife Cynthia Hurley described him as having “no compassion at all.” Indeed, different friends of the Barakats have come forward to talk about run-ins with Hicks and his attempts to intimidate them. Amira Ata, a long time friend of Yusor, describes a night at their house:

“In October or November, we went to dinner at Yusor and Deah’s house. Right after we left, Yusor heard a knock at the door and it was Hicks. She told us he was angry and said we were noisy and there were two extra cars in the neighborhood. We used visitor parking but he was still mad. He said we woke up his wife. It wasn’t that dark yet. It wasn’t late. And it wasn’t that loud…While he was at the door talking to Yusor, he was holding a rifle, she told me later. He didn’t point it at anyone, but he still had it. Yusor called to check on us after we left, to make sure he hadn’t approached us.”

The father of Yusor and Razan also describes how this harassment began after Yusor and Deah were married. Deah, by all accounts, could easily pass for your average white college student. Yet Yusor, with her headscarf, clearly marked the couple as Muslim. Her father explains, “My daughter, Yusor, honest to God, told us on more than two occasions that this man came knocking at the door and fighting about everything with a gun on his belt, more than twice. She told us, ‘Daddy, I think he hates us for who we are and how we look.'”

In the wake of Charlie Hedbo attacks and multiple gruesome murders from the Islamic State, there has been a rise in anti-Muslim attacks and anger across the globe. Because of this, many Muslims within the local community, including the parents of the victims, believe this is a hate crime. Although Hick’s current wife says this has to do with disputes over parking spots, many believe that is just a farce, to set up a mental illness defense for Hicks.

Nihad Awad, who works for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, stated that because of the Muslim attire and the rise in anti-Muslim rhetoric in America, they “urge state and federal law enforcement authorities to quickly address speculation of a possible bias motive in this case.”

Chapel Hill police Chief Chris Blue told reporters that “We understand the concerns about the possibility that this was hate-motivated, and we will exhaust every lead to determine if that is the case.”

Whether it was motivated by a parking space or by his extreme hate of religion, or a mix of both, what remains is that three promising lives were snuffed out forever. These lives were joyous ones, that displayed compassion and service when confronted with the needs of others. It is a loss best summed up by one of Yusor’s best friends, Amira Ata:

“I used to speak to her every day, we won’t be able to do that anymore. He took so much — from me, from this family, from this community. You saw the people coming out [for the vigils]. You see how loved, how respected they were. We all have to suffer this loss, and for what? If the roles were reversed you would have a huge terrorist problem in the headline. That’s the funny thing.

We’re just taking it slow. Looking at pictures, remembering her. Tonight, there’s something at seven o’clock. I know the funeral isn’t today.

I can’t believe it’s only 11 o’ clock. I don’t know what I’m going to do.”