I’ve felt like a stranger in a strange land reading the coverage of the horrific murders of three students in Chapel Hill. The kind, generous nation I see and love is missing. In its place is a cold and angry nation riven by hate-fueled division.
I see America as a land of opportunity, a nation whose moral arc inexorably bends toward justice. It is a nation where first the English and Irish and now Arabs and Jews, Sunnis and Shias leave behind the violent tensions roiling their homelands to start new lives in a country where no one group has a greater claim on Americanism. It is a nation that offers one of the last safe havens to Jews, who are being hounded out of Europe. It is a nation that has responded to the great civil rights issue of our time, same-sex marriage, with wondrous acceptance.
The coverage casts America as a violent land, seething with bigoted rage. The Feb. 15 front page of this newspaper featured a pull-out quote from a Muslim-American asserting that the U.S. always needs someone to hate and, “Right now it’s our turn.” In her grief, the sister of one of the victims declared that it is “open season” on Muslims. These comments are false. While one hate crime is one too many, anti-Muslim attacks are extremely rare in America. This didn’t stop a professor of Islamic Studies at N.C. State University from declaring that “the culture of intolerance and violence (is) taking root in the U.S.”
I see the American spirit in the thousands of people who have attended memorial services and vigils around the country to honor innocent victims they never knew.
The coverage suggests that the American spirit is embodied by anonymous commenters who spew bile on social media.
I see the American experience embodied in the lives of the three victims, who, through hard work and open hearts, were pursuing their dreams while making the world a better place.
The coverage suggests the American spirit can be found in the tortured soul of the angry monster who allegedly killed them.
It is this false assertion – that the suspect, Craig Hicks, represents anything other than himself – that is driving much of the response to and coverage of this crime. It is why this local triple murder has received worldwide attention.
Law enforcement officials have not found that the slayings were driven by anti-Muslim bias. Nevertheless, President Obama responded by saying that, “No one in the United States of America should ever be targeted because of who they are, what they look like, or how they worship.” This is true, but off-point, suggesting that the killings stemmed from bigotry.
Against all evidence, some argue America is downplaying the shootings because of anti-Muslim bias. An op-ed published last week asserted that if the roles had been reversed – had Muslims killed white Americans – “the news cycle would have immediately shifted to overheated reports of Islamic terrorists coming home.”
She is right, it would have – and for good reason. Terror perpetrated in the name of Islam is a global phenomenon. New York and Boston have already experienced devastating attacks; just this week a foreign group called for new attacks on America’s malls. Every sensible American should be concerned. By contrast, there is no evidence of a homegrown movement to attack Muslims. In essence, the writer was wishing away a real threat while conjuring a false one.
Still, I understand why many Muslims feel aggrieved. It is hard to see people commit atrocities in the name of your faith and to have your religion portrayed by some as a problem. The racial profiling and guilt by association some encounter are unfair. But, as it was for the three Chapel Hill victims, America is a land of opportunity for most Muslims.
There is still bigotry in America, but it is far from our guiding spirit. We are a good, tolerant, indeed, exceptional people. Unfortunately, a growing threat to this democratic ethic is the steady stream of stories – including claims of wars on women and minorities and hyped-up threats of “domestic terrorists” – portraying our nation in a dark light. A national discourse centered on division can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
To place this tragedy in its proper context, let’s remember the words of one of the victims, Yusor Abu-Salha, who said last year: “The beautiful thing [about America], is that it doesn’t matter where you come from. There’s so many different people from so many different places, of different backgrounds and religions – but here we’re all one, one culture. And it’s beautiful to see people of different areas interacting, and being family. Being, you know, one community.”
Contributing columnist J. Peder Zane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.