A Detailed Look at the Chapel Hill Shootings and the Atheist Who Killed Three Innocent Muslims

The latest issue of the New Yorker has perhaps the most detailed account yet of what happened on February 10 of this year, when 46-year-old Craig Stephen Hicks went to an apartment near the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and killed three Muslims — Deah Shaddy Barakat (23), his wife of just over a month Yusor Abu-Salha (21), and her sister Razan Abu-Salha (19) — before turning himself in to the police.

L-RChapel
(from L-R) Deah Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Abu-Salha, and Razan Abu-Salha (via Twitter)

The article gives you a much better sense of who these victims were and how they did nothing whatsoever to deserve their fate.

We also learn more about Hicks. When the news broke, a lot of the commentary focused on his anti-theism. Hicks was an atheist. He spread anti-religious memes on his now-removed Facebook page and “liked” organizations well-known in our corner of the Internet.

Most of the young residents of Finley Forest were on an upward arc in life. Hicks was not. In the mid-aughts, he had been laid off from a job as an auto-parts salesman. After working for a few years at the deli counter of a Harris Teeter, he was taking classes at Durham Tech Community College, in the hope of becoming a paralegal. Karen was his third wife. He was no longer in contact with a twenty-year-old daughter from his first marriage. He’d recently received a summons to appear in court and pay fourteen thousand dollars in child support for his other daughter, who was ten.

On Facebook, Hicks presented himself as a libertarian gun enthusiast and an “anti-theist” who wanted “religion to go away.” In one post, he wrote, “The moment that your religion claims any kind of jurisdiction over my experience, you insult me on a level that you can’t even begin to comprehend. Even if your beliefs had substance, the arrogance of that would be insult enough. But the fact that they have no substance, and are merely a transparent raft of delusions and lies, magnifies the insult enormously.”

Hicks had no prior criminal record, and, despite his pugnacious declarations on social media, he apparently did not belong to any anti-religious organization.

But the question remains: Did he kill these innocent people because of their religious differences? Or was that just a coincidence and this was really a dispute over parking spaces?

Neither answer would bring the victims back, but it has symbolic and legal importance. If it’s the former, then the atheist community at large could have a lot to answer for, certainly in the public’s mind, if not internally. If it’s the latter, then what the hell was wrong with this guy that a parking spot could tick him off this much?

Margaret Talbot‘s reporting, while bringing up Hicks’ atheism, suggests the motive is much more complicated than that. While his anti-religious feelings may have played a role, his concerns about parking were long-standing and appear to have pushed him over the edge (which makes little sense when you consider that the victims weren’t even in his spot the night he killed them):

Whatever the nature of the conflagration in Hicks’s mind, hatred of some kind clearly provided fuel. When the autopsy report was released, in early May, it showed that Hicks had sprayed Barakat with bullets, and that he had shot Abu-Salha and her sister in the head at close range. He then shot Barakat a final time as he left the apartment.

… Jack McDevitt, a criminologist at Northeastern University who studies hate crimes, thinks that Hicks’s act should be classified as one. “With hate crimes, it’s not always an either/or,” he said. “You can decide you want to rob someone, for instance, but only someone you perceive to be gay, because maybe you think they’ll be less likely to go to the police, or only an immigrant, because you think the police won’t take it as seriously. In this case, he’s angry about the way people around him live, but he’s chosen these specific people because they also represent a religion he’s intolerant of.” According to McDevitt, one factor that the F.B.I. considers when assessing a possible hate crime is whether “the level of violence is more than what is required to do the crime.” By that light, the fact that Hicks fired a number of shots and pressed his gun to the women’s heads seems relevant.

None of this resolves anything. Prosecutors are still seeking the death penalty for Hicks. He will, at minimum, spend the rest of his life in prison.

More importantly, though, three people who did just about everything right — and who planned to dedicate their own lives to improving the lives of others — are no longer with us. The article reminds us of who they were and why we must keep their memories alive. Yes, we have theological differences with them, but they were the sort of people who could easily be role models for your children.

Hicks, who apparently couldn’t see past a person’s faith, had a host of problems even before his murderous rampage. There’s a reason most atheist groups were quick to condemn him, standing in solidarity with Muslims everywhere.


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