I am Chapel Hill

As a Sikh, woman and human rights lawyer, I am seeking three things that should not be mutually exclusive: respect for t...


This time the shots were fired in North Carolina, and I joined many others in feeling the recoil in Northern California.

That night, sitting in the car with my turbaned Sikh husband at a gas station, I oscillated between two feelings that capture the range of my response: outrage at my fearless self for intuitively turning around twice to stare across the empty filling station and sadness staring down at my phone at an article I had shared on social media that identified this gunman as an “atheist” repeatedly, to strengthen its point that terrorists of different touted beliefs are treated differently.

As a Sikh, woman and human rights lawyer, I am seeking three things that should not be mutually exclusive: respect for the deceased and their families; immediate acknowledgment of the larger context of this act of terror; and fair legal process for the arrested gunman.

Three bright young lives were lost in Chapel Hill in this execution that has sent waves of terror across the country. The outrage in many circles is not simply because many Americans can relate to the social media photographs of these young people at ball games, in a white wedding dress during a father-daughter dance, or wearing a graduation cap and gown. It is also because too many have known the fear of living while brown — or Muslim, Sikh, Middle Eastern or South Asian since 9/11. The first Sikh American death in the country happened at an Arizona gas station by a self-proclaimed “patriot.”

For the world to recognize the legacy of the three young people lost, as their relative Dr. Suzanne Barakat hoped aloud on live television on Wednesday night, it’s important for the world to be firstly outraged at the targeting and killing of anyone based on their identity.

Secondly, we need a robust discussion about how such identity-based targeting exists in many forms much before it ever becomes a legally recognized hate crime.

These executions force the conversation that we have largely refused to have since the executions at Charlie Hebdo media offices in France. A conversation about proportional responses to all civilian deaths and all acts of terror. A conversation about how few non-Muslim world leaders other than Pope Francis chastised (ab)use of the hard-won freedom of expression to bully or abuse other traditions; how a spokesman had to then explain the pope’s own exercise of free speech by reiterating obvious condemnation of the murders. How the European literati has ironically swallowed the “if you are not with us [loudly, every time], you are against us” they once ridiculed. As Americans, more of us should have shunned this approach on September 11, and many of us need to actively shun it today. Some of us will not because we believe that people are inherently unequal and “civilizing” the world requires unleashing terror: many of us are needed to shut down these few (be they ISIS who President Obama has declared war against or the white supremacy groups that the Southern Poverty Law Center has long warred against).

Thirdly, the man arrested for these murders has the right to a fair legal trial. Being non-Muslim cannot win the assailant a free pass. But neither does it beget him the guillotine or foregone conclusions or the power to represent all atheists or all whites everywhere. Falling for those tropes disrespects the memory of Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, Deah Shaddy Barakat, and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha and solidifies the divides that other recent reactions against terror have regretfully poked. The killings must be investigated for hate, while each of us investigates our personal ability to question racism, xenophobia, and extremism before it gets deadlier.

Mallika Kaur is a lawyer who focuses on gender and minority issues in the United States and South Asia. She has a juris doctor from the University of California at Berkeley School of Law and a master’s in public policy from Harvard Kennedy School of Government. 


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