It came very suddenly, an outburst of tears amid my sobs. It had been building since the night before, when I first came across a tweet indicating that something horrible had happened in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, a city which I had associated mainly with college basketball. The limited news coverage, all local at first, showed a middle-aged man imploring police officers to let him see his son’s apartment, then to at least tell him if his son was alive or not, all to no avail. Then came more tweets, still just a trickle, before the police had commented, before the news stations could even report it, saying that three young people, all Muslims by religious faith, had been shot and killed. Then, a river of tweets, coming from the victims’ friends and relatives, who posted pictures:
- A tall, smiling young man standing beside two smiling young women wearing hijabs, one also wearing a graduation cap;
- The same young man seated with one of the women for a formal portrait on their wedding day, the young man dressed sharply, the young woman a radiant bride;
- The young man, in his wedding suit sans jacket, dribbling a basketball;
- The young woman, proudly standing with her husband, who sports a white medical jacket;
- The young man and woman at a Carolina Panthers football game;
- The young woman at her wedding, dancing with a man whose face is obscured by his arm, the caption reading “Dancing with Daddy ??.”
“Dancing with Daddy ??.” No image could be more sweet, and in that moment, more heartbreaking at the same time. And the next morning, while watching the young man’s family as they held a brief press conference, seeing their pain was too much for me. I wept, and wept again when my eyes settled on the man’s grieving father. Perhaps it’s because I’m a father, too.
I can only imagine what the families of these beautiful, awesome young Americans are going through. The short several years in which I’ve been a dad have helped me gain, I think, a bit of insight into a parent’s grief when his or her child dies. The emotional bond between parent and child is so intensely powerful, that the death of a child must be shattering. When it comes suddenly, the grief must be unspeakable. For the families of the Chapel Hill victims, the grief is augmented even more by the horrific way in which the lives of Deah, his wife Yusor, and her sister Razan were taken.
I’ve read comments online from some folks who wonder why anyone really cares whether this triple murder is considered a hate crime. After all, they reason, any act of murder, much less one that takes multiple lives, is evil and full of hate. But that’s not what is meant by the legal term “hate crime.” Hate crimes, which can also include assault, harassment, or even vandalism, target victims because they belong to a particular group of people; a motivation of prejudice is present. Often, these groups are defined by race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation. Hate crimes are particularly heinous because they strike terror in the hearts of other people from that group; perhaps we could think of them as acts of “targeted terrorism.” Consequently, hate crimes often carry additional legal penalties for offenders.
At the moment, the authorities say they’re investigating whether the murders were actually hate crimes. Their alternative hypothesis asks if the killings are just the result of a belligerent, soon-to-be-divorced-again, open-gun-carrying neighbor with psychopathic traits who snapped when he felt aggrieved one too many times over parking spaces. The killer’s wife, his soon-to-be second ex-wife, has stated it was the latter and not the former.
But of course, it was a hate crime.
The alternative theory has a lot of truth to it. The murderer (who by now, you may have guessed, will be refused the dignity of being named in this column) was indeed belligerent, soon-to-be-divorced-again, open-gun-carrying, and lacking empathy for other people. And a perceived slight about parking may have lit his fuse on the day of the murders. But the powder keg inside him, the anger that had built up over years, demonstrates the reality – this was a hate crime.
Frequently, a crime becomes identifiable as a hate crime when the perpetrator yells a slur of some kind while in the act. That may not have happened here. But just because the Chapel Hill killer didn’t leave graffiti that says something awful like “ragheads go home” doesn’t mean it wasn’t a hate crime.
An examination of the murderer’s social media posts shows whom he most detests – religious people, whom he ridicules mercilessly. Particularly attracting his ire are Muslims and Christians.
If he indeed exploded in violence because he felt his parking rights had been violated one too many times, we need only look to that which fueled his fire the most – his antipathy toward religious people, of which he would have identified Deah, Yusor, and Razan as being, at the very least because of the women’s hijabs.
So of course it was a hate crime.
Some legal observers say that it is very hard to prove whether a crime is a hate crime, because a prosecutor must establish beyond a reasonable doubt that the perpetrator acted on his prejudice while in the act. Yes, it may be difficult. But the authorities should at least file hate crime charges and try. Deah’s, Yusor’s, and Razan’s families hope for that, as do many Muslim Americans, as do numerous Americans of every race, religion, gender, and sexual orientation.
I am one of those Americans. Because even if prosecutors are unable to convince a jury that a hate crime happened, we know the reality.
It was a hate crime.
Eugene Hung serves as the lead organizer in the Los Angeles area for the Man Up Campaign, which mobilizes young men worldwide to work for an end to violence against women and girls and to advocate for women’s equality. He also is the author of this blog, Raising Asian American Daughters. You can follow him on Twitter at @eughung.