Note: This post has been updated with additional information since initial publication.
Update, 12 February: “No specific reaction” from White House
On Wednesday, at the White House press briefing, President Obama’s spokesperson was asked about the administration’s reaction to the Chapel Hill shootings.
“There’s no specific reaction from the White House,” Obama spokesperson Josh Earnest replied.
Earnest added that the White House would await the results of the local police investigation before saying anything, a standard, as I note below, that not been applied in other recent cases of mass violence. In those cases, Obama has strongly condemned killings and offered condolences and federal assistance to local authorities immediately.
Obama’s studied silence continues even as Chapel Hill newspaper The News and Observer reports that thousands came out last night to mourn Deah Barakat, Yusor Abu-Salha and Razan Abu-Salha, whose killings, it said, “reverberate around the world.”
Jordan’s foreign ministry has also announced that the Abu-Salha sisters carried Jordanian citizenship.
Whatever he says, if anything, in the next few hours, US President Barack Obama’s silence so far on the murders of three young Muslims in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, last night already speaks volumes.
Once again, Obama is sending the message that racially or religiously motivated violence by white men, against Muslims or people of color, is not his concern and is not a public concern.
He’s demonstrating contempt for Deah Shaddy Barakat, 23, his wife Yusor Abu-Salha, 21, and Yusor’s sister, Razan Abu-Salha, 19, who were gunned down last night. (The Facebook page “Our Three Winners” has been set up to pay tribute to the three accomplished young people.)
He’s demonstrating neglect for Muslim Americans left in shock, fear and anguish. Few who have paid attention to the relentlessly rising volume of unchecked Islamophobia will be surprised at these killings. And we cannot ignore the role of the “war on terror” that Obama is escalating once again in stoking hatred of Muslims.
A neighbor, Craig Stephen Hicks, 46, turned himself in over the shooting. A Facebook page apparently belonging to Hicks examined in detail by The Electronic Intifada contains a relentless stream of anti-religious diatribes going back years, with many posts quoting the notorious British Islamophobic “atheist” Richard Dawkins.
When the alleged perpetrator of a crime is identified as Muslim, far less than this is necessary for media to begin speculating about “terrorist” motives.
Yet absurdly, Chapel Hill police announced: “Our preliminary investigation indicates that the crime was motivated by an ongoing neighbor dispute over parking.”
As of this morning, no mainstream media outlets I could see were referring to the murders as a potential act of “terrorism.”
With the 15 April 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, however, the label was applied immediately.
Obama, to his slight credit, waited a single day before rushing to judgment that the Boston bombing was indeed a “terrorist” attack and its unknown perpetrators “terrorists.” But he did not wait that long to address a panicked nation and first spoke out about the attack, pledging federal resources within hours.
As I wrote at that time: “It is also important to note the contrast between Obama’s eagerness to label the Boston attack as ‘terror’ and its alleged perpetrators as ‘terrorists’ – without evidence – and his reluctance to label the August 2012 mass murder at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin as ‘terrorism’ despite the identification of the shooter as having a history of white nationalist and supremacist activism.”
Similarly, public intellectual Dr. Cornel West has slammed Obama for “silence” on the murder and oppression of Black Americans by police.
West criticized Obama for sending out condolences on the death of Hollywood actor Robin Williams before acknowledging the police killing in Ferguson, Missouri, of Michael Brown.
Obama has no excuse for not speaking
The families of Deah Barakat and Yusor and Razan Abu-Salha held a press conference on Wednesday afternoon urging authorities to investigate the murders as hate crimes (video). Deah’s older sister Suzanne Barakat also gave this powerful and emotional interview to CNN’s Anderson Cooper.
Given the national and global attention to this case, and the heightened tensions due to Islamophobia, Obama could have already issued a short statement to the effect that he’s aware of the horrific tragedy, sends condolences for three young Americans, is gathering information and will offer federal assistance to local authorities.
Indeed, that is precisely what Obama did right after the 13 April 2014 shooting at Jewish community center in Kansas City. The president noted that “While we do not know all of the details surrounding today’s shooting, the initial reports are heartbreaking.”
He offered his condolences for the dead and said “I have asked my team to stay in close touch with our federal, state and local partners and provide the necessary resources to support the ongoing investigation.”
Is that too much to ask? Instead there has been silence almost twenty-four hours after the shootings.
White men’s culture and violence
There is a disturbing pattern here that is inescapable yet little discussed, but raised eloquently in a March 2013 Washington Post op-ed by Charlotte Childress and Harriet Childress.
It’s so important, I’m quoting it at length:
Imagine if African American men and boys were committing mass shootings month after month, year after year. Articles and interviews would flood the media, and we’d have political debates demanding that African Americans be “held accountable.” Then, if an atrocity such as the Newtown, Conn., shootings took place and African American male leaders held a news conference to offer solutions, their credibility would be questionable. The public would tell these leaders that they need to focus on problems in their own culture and communities.
But when the criminals and leaders are white men, race and gender become the elephant in the room.
Nearly all of the mass shootings in this country in recent years — not just Newtown, Aurora, Fort Hood, Tucson and Columbine — have been committed by white men and boys. Yet when the National Rifle Association (NRA), led by white men, held a news conference after the Newtown massacre to advise Americans on how to reduce gun violence, its leaders’ opinions were widely discussed.
Unlike other groups, white men are not used to being singled out. So we expect that many of them will protest it is unfair if we talk about them. But our nation must correctly define their contribution to our problem of gun violence if it is to be solved.
When white men try to divert attention from gun control by talking about mental health issues, many people buy into the idea that the United States has a national mental health problem, or flawed systems with which to address those problems, and they think that is what produces mass shootings.
But women and girls with mental health issues are not picking up semiautomatic weapons and shooting schoolchildren. Immigrants with mental health issues are not committing mass shootings in malls and movie theaters. Latinos with mental health issues are not continually killing groups of strangers.
Childress and Childress pose these questions in ways we are not used to hearing, when the subjects are white men:
What facets of white male culture create so many mass shootings?
Why are so many white men and boys producing and entertaining themselves with violent video games and other media?
Why do white men buy, sell and manufacture guns for profit; attend gun shows; and demonstrate for unrestricted gun access disproportionately more than people of other ethnicities or races? Why are white male congressmen leading the fight against gun control?
If Americans ask the right questions on gun issues, we will get the right answers. These answers will encourage white men to examine their role in their own culture and to help other white men and boys become healthier and less violent.
Interestingly, Childress and Childress classify the 2009 Fort Hood shooter as a white man. According to US census definitions, they are correct since people of Arab ancestry are officially classified as “caucasian.”
But in fact, unlike mass shooters of European descent, US Army Major Nidal Malik Hassan, who was sentenced to death for killing fourteen fellow soldiers, has widely been called an “Islamic terrorist” by US media and politicians.
Muslims are used to being collectively scapegoated, any and all of them considered accountable for the acts of any other Muslim anywhere in the world. And whereas the actions of white shooters are almost immediately attributed to “mental health” issues, those who happen to be Muslim are always suspected of having religion as their driving motive.
Obama may speak soon and I’ll be watching what he says. But his silence has already sent a disturbing message.