A teenage girl from my hometown in Northern Virginia, a girl identified most prominently as a Muslim, has reportedly been murdered with a baseball bat. We do not know and may never know whether prominent promotion of hatred toward Muslims contributed. The question of whether this was a “hate crime” is unanswered, despite the clear requirement that hatred have been involved.
The man accused of the crime by police has not been as prominently identified as Hispanic as he almost certainly would have been had his victim not been Muslim. For that, we should all be grateful. The urge to blame groups for a crime is at least as strong as that to defend groups from a crime. Past incidents in Northern Virginia have resulted in widespread hatred and bigotry toward Latino immigrants. Perhaps this crime can avoid being a crime that spreads hatred.
Reportedly no guns were involved in this crime. For that, perhaps, several of the victims’ friends can be grateful. An enraged attack on a group in the United States often results in numerous murders, because the attacker is armed with a weapon of war rather than sports equipment.
In this particular tragedy we are left without explanation. Often horrible events that are perfectly comprehensible are described as impossible to understand, meaning simply that they are horrible. Other times they really are impossible to understand, not in a Panglossian sense, but in the ordinary sense that we don’t know what caused them. Mental illness? Drugs? Cruelty toward the future murderer? Childhood abuse? A culture of violence? An unknown history between the murderer and his victim? Quite likely none of the above. Quite possibly we’ll never have a clue. Arguably the most respectful thing toward the victim is not to ask.
Despite the publicity and the connections made by journalists to global trends, the most respectful thing is probably to offer condolences and abide by any wishes of the victim’s family and friends. She ought to be valued as a human being. If she had been so valued by her killer, she would be alive.
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t address the problems that statistically produce more violent societies: economic inequality, class stratification, insecurity, machismo, violent entertainment, mass incarceration, militarism, etc. The statistics that predictably and inexcusably pile up as a result of our inaction are not statistics at all, but human beings, just like this one.
When I grew up in Reston, Virginia, I was aware of nothing like this, and would possibly have been traumatized by witnessing it or learning of it. Back then, young people died, as far as I knew, from drunk driving or suicide. Now numerous young people are probably feeling frightened, while others have had the idea placed subtly in the back of their minds that one thing that some people sometimes do is murder Muslims with baseball bats. This is how insidious violence can be.
Less subtly, another Northern Virginian entity, the NRA, likes to promote the false but profitable idea that more people carrying more guns around will make people safer. That’s another way that horrors can multiply.
On a global scale, one murder won’t last long in the news, but when a murder is close to home it should help us understand the global scale.
Imagine the hundreds of civilians whom the United Nations accuses the United States of killing in Syria. Imagine their friends and families. Imagine their reactions. Some, like the father of the girl just killed in Virginia, may commit to forgiveness (or a quasi-forgiveness that relies on a deity to exact revenge). Others may store up hatred and buy up weapons.
During the U.S. war on Vietnam, General William Westmoreland argued that Asians don’t value life as much as Westerners, so killing them doesn’t matter as much. That is a myth to be overcome as quickly as possible. The one thing we do know about each of the deaths inflicted by the U.S. military in Afghanistan, Syria, Pakistan, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, or Yemen, is that each community has experienced one or ten or a thousand tragedies, and that every tragedy is one too many.