Three beautiful young Americans in North Carolina, smart, funny, two of them thrilled with their new marriage, all of them looking ahead to new schools, new careers. Just the age of the young Kayla Mueller, held hostage by ISIS and killed before or by a Jordanian anti-ISIS air raid. All three killed in cold blood. Is this what we’ve all been so afraid of, terrorists coming home?
Actually, if this was a terrorist act, it isn’t the kind of terrorism we’ve been afraid of: militants trained by ISIS and coming home. If this was terrorism, it’s home-grown terrorism, the kind that has been a feature of our country for far too long. The victims, three Muslim Arab-Americans, a newlywed couple and the bride’s younger sister, allegedly were killed by their neighbor, a white American who wrote about his hatred of all religions.
The suspect had had issues with the victims about a parking space. But parking space arguments don’t usually turn deadly. Social media have been full of calls from fans of “American Sniper” to go after Arabs and Muslims just like U.S. snipers did – and do – in Iraq.
Terrorism has lots of definitions. But the State Department version starts with “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets.” In this country, by that definition, terrorism looks like a bomb planted outside the Colorado office of the NAACP, the nation’s most storied civil rights organization. Terrorism might look like an angry white man in North Carolina who threatens an Arab family by showing them the gun in his belt and, according to the New York Times, posted photos of his .38 caliber 5-shot revolver on Facebook and then allegedly takes his gun and in their own home kills three politically active young people, whose appearance made clear their commitment and pride in their Arab and Muslim identity.
It’s a problem when officials describing the slayings in North Carolina are so reluctant to acknowledge even that it might be an act of terror. Authorities say they don’t know yet, but the police still issued a statement within hours saying that “our preliminary investigation indicates that the crime was motivated by an ongoing neighbor dispute over parking.” The chief of police was careful to add “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.” But his claimed commitment was undermined by his eagerness to keep the focus on the parking dispute before any such effort to “exhaust every lead” had even begun.
It’s sobering to consider what would have happened – what would have been assumed – if the demographic situation were reversed, if a Muslim Arab had bragged about his guns and carried them in a threatening manner, and three popular young white Christian or Jewish students had ended up dead. Parking dispute or no, it would immediately be assumed to be an act of terror, until proven otherwise. And there probably wouldn’t have been much effort to try to find any other possibility.
If Deah Shaddy Barakat had been a confessed murderer and his wife, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, and her younger sister Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha had been known accomplices, the news cycle would have immediately shifted to overheated reports of Islamic terrorists coming home, the charity they worked with would have been accused of terrorist ties, every so-called “terrorism expert” in the country would have expounded on Fox and CNN about the dangers of new terrorist threats from Arabs and Arab-Americans and Muslims in our midst. Even if the authorities “weren’t sure yet.”
Instead, just a few hours after the shootings, the U.S. Attorney in North Carolina concluded that it was an “isolated incident.” It wasn’t clear how he could know that so quickly. His remark also raised the question of why something that might be a terrorist act is automatically no longer terror if it is an “isolated incident.” Was Timothy McVeigh’s destruction of the Oklahoma City federal building not terrorism because it was a one-time “isolated incident”?
The U.S. Attorney also announced, less than 24 hours after the murders – long before “every lead” had even been identified, let alone “exhausted”– that the attack was “not part of a targeted campaign against Muslims.” Somehow that was not much comfort. We are living through a moment when the global war on terror has demonized whole populations of Arabs and Muslims as potential terrorists, terrorists-in-training, terrorists. We should at least be willing to acknowledge that sometimes that demonization comes home.
Phyllis Bennis is the director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington.