When Palestinians Die: Richard Falk on the Chapel Hill Shooting and the Media

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Scholar Richard Falk discusses the recent shooting of three Muslim Palestinian-Americans in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, the subsequent conversation about hate crimes and Islamophobia, and the mainstream media coverage of the killer and victims.

On February 10, 2015, Craig Stephen Hicks allegedly murdered Deah Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha. All three victims were Palestinian or Palestinian-American and lived in North Carolina. The incident has sparked debate about hate crimes and Islamophobia, but the press has seemed not to fully engage with this larger conversation. Truthout spoke with Richard Falk, professor emeritus of international law at Princeton University, about the incident and the coverage.

Dan Falcone: In light of the recent shooting of Muslims in North Carolina, Russian Television was pondering whether the killings would have received a quicker, more widespread and more responsive media reaction had the perpetrator been a Muslim, instead of the victims, as seen in this case. My thought is that this question is beyond the hypothetical. What are your thoughts?

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 interpretations 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 Muslims in North Carolina (Deah Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Mohammad, and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha) being sometimes explained as a “parking” dispute among neighbors.

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 mask the advance of reactionary behaviors. Furthermore, when coupled with neoconservatism, new atheism cherry picks which sociopolitical groups are targeted in the name of freedom. Do you see this as an attempt in doublespeak to intentionally cloud the issue?

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 Kouachi 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.

I noticed many educated readers, citizens and members of 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?

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 mindset than that of those who acted in Boston or Oslo?

New atheism, far from a coherent movement, seems to suggest that hate crimes are symmetrical and are both color and religiously blind. Given the fact that all three victims were of Palestinian origin or background, will this motivate the United States, and 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?

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 Hicks, the North Carolina killer, was self-described as “a gun-toting liberal” known for his hostile attitudes toward religion, making the fact that two of the victims wore headscarves possibly an element that heightened his lethal anger.

I do not think this linkage between atheism and extremist violence is helpful as it avoids the cultural and religious prisms through which political behavior is being 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 cultural 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).