After an atheist named Craig Hicks of Chapel Hill, NC murdered Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, and Deah Shaddy Barakat, an immediate struggle broke out amongst atheists like myself who suspect that the casual anti-Muslim bigotry that flourishes in some atheist circles might have played a role and those who wished to deny that, usually saying that it looks like it was just a dispute over a parking space. Well, Jonathan Katz of the New York Times has investigated. As I suspected was going to happen, there’s not some simple black-and-white narrative where we can say for certain it was either just some single-minded obsession with parking or some anti-Muslim animus. For those who are burrowed into the just-a-dispute-over-parking narrative, there’s plenty to hide behind. Hicks hasn’t come right out and said it was because they were Muslim. He did, in fact, seem to have a big hang-up over parking spaces. It is true that there’s no mustache-twirling villainy, where the evil cartoon villain says, “You’re right! I am a bigot! MWAH HA HA!” Many will take cover behind that.
But here’s the thing and it’s critical to understand how these things work: Almost no one who is motivated by bigotry names it that. Nor is bigotry some kind of pristine, bubble ideology that exists untethered to other views or feelings that a person has. On the contrary, one reason bigotry is such a nasty beast is it tends to be all tied up in the bigot’s own constellation of insecurities, fears, political beliefs, and hang-ups. Lindy West’s segment on This American Life where she interviewed a man who was trolling her on Twitter is a good example. You find out that he was suffering through some serious insecurity issues and probably some mental health problems and he turned to misogyny to try to feel better about himself. Some, trying to minimize the problem of misogyny, might say that this shows that it’s “about” mental health or insecurity or whatever. But he did not choose his target at random. He picked West because, as a fat woman, she was “supposed” be self-hating and apologetic and instead she is confident and happy, and he wanted to tear her down. With bigots, it is rarely something as simple as, “I hate X group, so I am going to do something harassing or violent.” It’s often all tied up in how they feel about themselves, how they think members of the other group are supposed to act and feel, whether or not they feel they’re getting due deference from people they perceive as inferior, that sort of thing. Believe me. I have dozens of misogynists who obsess about me night and day, and it’s stunningly obvious how many of them are motivated in no small part by deep insecurities about their own sexuality and sense of masculinity. But they are also bigots. The two things feed into each other and cannot be easily separated.
Which brings us to Craig Hicks. Undoubtably, the man obsessed about parking. But the question is why. And why were the parking habits of these three people particularly offensive to him? As anyone who has dealt with HOA bullies or parking nazis can tell you, most of them are insecure people and control over these shared spaces become symbolic of all the ways they feel the world is not showing them proper respect. That’s why the “it was over parking” gambit feels so hollow. We all know that territorial disputes are often stand-ins for the real fights over things like status and hierarchy. Not always, but often. And the fact that this ended in murder makes it exponentially less likely that concerns over things like status and ego were not factors. Very few people kill because they are inconvenienced. Plenty of people kill over what they consider a slight to their honor or status.
With that in mind, Katz discovered that, no big surprise, Hicks appeared aware that his life wasn’t a nice as his neighbors and a lot of his obsessions were driven by that:
The contrast between the paunchy, balding Mr. Hicks and the rest of the complex’s residents was stark. Many were aspiring professionals and academics at a premier public university. Mr. Hicks was unemployed, taking night classes at a community college in hopes of becoming a paralegal. Mrs. Hicks told her lawyer that Mr. Hicks would stare out the second-floor window, obsessing over neighbors’ parties, patterns and parking.
He did fight with all his neighbors over parking, but had it out especially for Abu-Salha and Barakat, who were very newlywed and whose happiness seemed to annoy him particularly. Before they were married, the escalation of visits between Abu-Salha and Barakat seemed to set Hicks off. When they got married, he got even angrier. He was particularly incensed by the fact that they had friends visiting them frequently. It seems that the likeliest explanation was that he resented this neighbors for having a fun life full of love and friends and being able to stop them from using the parking in order to conduct this life became an obsession point for him.
Does that make it bigotry? Well, it can’t be said with 100% certainty, but it raises the odds to sky high levels. Because I’ve spent years as an online feminist, I would have a strong working knowledge of the psychology of obsessive misogynists even if I tried to ignore them—they come at you that often and strongly. But I also follow and regularly cover things like the “men’s rights” movement and Gamergate. And I can say with absolute confidence that almost nothing causes obsessive bigotry like members of a hated group demonstrating happiness and confidence in themselves. Or being attractive or popular or powerful or successful or whatever. For a certain kind of deeply insecure or controlling bigot, seeing people from a hated group happy pushes their buttons, hard. You really saw this with Gamergate. The ostensible excuse for the whole thing—-“ethics in video game journalism”—came down to a bunch of people griping about how video game journalists, developers, critics, and other big wigs in the field often socialize together and even (gasp!) have sex with each other. You got the strong impression that it wasn’t so much a legitimate concern that was influencing coverage, as no evidence was produced even suggesting slightly that this was the case, but more an attempt to spin what was a naked jealousy that some people seemed to be having fun. Jealousy that was aimed, full cannon-style, at women, because women experiencing success and pleasure was particularly offensive to them. Those women must be cheating, you know? It’s the only explanation for how a woman could be doing well while they, the Gamergaters, were not.
We can’t know with 100% certainty that Hicks got it into his head that it was unfair that his life was kind of crappy while his Muslim neighbors were living it up or that he obsessed about controlling the parking spaces as a way to regain a sense of superiority over them. But if that is what happened, it’s a pattern I’ve seen over and over again. You see it with Gamergaters, who have zeroed in on attempts to control what people write in video reviews as a symbolic way to reestablish the dominance of their worldview in gaming. Or with the current bakery wars, where homophobes try to tear at the happiness of gay couples getting married by trying to turn the flower- or cake-buying experience into a minefield where people discriminate against you. Or the comment section under any video with a female host on YouTube, where insecure men try to undermine her success by yelling “tits!” at her. Or the comment sections under any feminist writing online, which get flooded by misogynists whose hateful comments are just in service of the larger message, which is that they will never let women have a space of their own but will burn it to the ground with vitriol rather than let you enjoy it.
Katz reports that no one had parked in Hicks’s spot the day of the shooting. But who knows, at that point, what they were doing with their cars that he felt was a slight upon his honor such that he needed to kill them.