The tragedy in Chapel Hill

Three shooting deaths. One parking space. So many difficult questions.

We’re still grappling, as others are, with exactly what happened Tuesday night in Chapel Hill. Three promising college students – 23-year-old Deah Shaddy Barakat, 21-year-old Yusor Abu-Salha and her sister, 19-year-old Razan Abu-Salha – are dead. A man, 46-year-old Craig Stephen Hicks, has been charged with shooting them.

The students are Muslim. The man is a self-proclaimed “anti-theist” who has railed on social media against religion. Perhaps that had little to do with the incident. Perhaps it’s significant.

Police sent a clear signal Wednesday that they believe the shootings were not a planned hate crime, but a reaction to a parking dispute at an apartment complex. That notion was met with immediate pushback from the Muslim community, including the father of one of the victims, Mohammad Abu-Salha, a Clayton psychiatrist who wants the shootings prosecuted as a hate crime.

All of us should wait, of course, for authorities to complete their investigation. But we should understand why our Muslim neighbors suspect that the killings were about more than parking.

The limited public evidence points to different conclusions. Neighbors say Hicks had long been belligerent about parking space issues, to the point that they held a community meeting about him. But why, after years of quarreling, did Hicks finally use the gun he’d been carrying? Did the victims’ faith set him off? It’s a legitimate question.

It’s also a reasonable question for a Muslim community that faces varying degrees of anti-Islam sentiment each day. The scorn manifests itself in many ways – from sideways glances at restaurants and on airplanes, to loaded (and false) accusations that Muslims don’t condemn violence across the globe from Islamic extremists.

And let’s not forget: North Carolina was one of several states to pass an anti-Sharia law that would prevent Islamic law from being imposed in N.C. courts. It was a pointless political measure here and in other states that served only to inflame mistrust of all Muslims. It’s no wonder hate crimes against Muslims in the U.S. continue at a rate five times higher than the years before 9/11, according to FBI’s 2013 Uniform Crime Statistics.

So who were these Muslims in Chapel Hill? They were Barakat, a doctoral student in dentistry who helped children in need and was set to travel overseas to treat refugee children. His wife, Yusor Abu-Salha, also served others and graduated with honors from North Carolina State, where her sister, Razan, was a Dean’s List student in architecture and environmental design.

They were gifted young adults. They were good people. And now, for whatever reason, they are gone. We should all mourn.