I was shocked and sickened today to discover that one of my students from last term had been murdered–shot to death this past January while sitting in her car on a street in East Orange, New Jersey. Her name was Tyeshia Obie, and she’s the third student of mine to have been murdered in the last decade. The other two were Stepha Henry and Imette St. Guillen, whom I taught (horribly and ironically enough) at John Jay College of Criminal Justice; both Stepha and Imette were murdered, in separate incidents, in the mid-2000s. All three–Tyeshia, Stepha, and Imette–were young women in their early 20s.
Here’s a video tribute to Tyeshia:
I only managed to hear the news today, and am having some trouble processing it: I still have her emails in my inbox, and can see her sitting in my Phil 100 critical reasoning class–334 Kirby Hall, second row, second seat on the left. I didn’t know her well. I just remember that she was quiet and smiled a lot.
I know it’s quixotic, but these lines from Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Saturday Night Special” keep going obsessively through my head:
Handguns are made for killin’
They ain’t no good for nothing else
And if you like to drink your whiskey
You might even shoot yourself
So why don’t we dump em, people
To the bottom of the sea?
Before some old fool come around here
Wanna shoot either you or me?
I’m clutching at straws here. I know it’s all more complicated than a Lynyrd Skynyrd song: I’ve said so myself. But sometimes I shake my head at the violence around me–the ease with which fools acquire firearms and prove their “manhood” by putting a bullet through another person’s life–and wish it were as simple as dumping em all “to the bottom of the sea.”
There don’t seem words adequate to capture the waste of of human potential involved, except perhaps Goya’s: el sueno de razon produce monstruos–“the sleep of reason produces monsters.” To which, I suppose, the only fitting response is Freud’s, from the Future of an Illusion:
The voice of the intellect is a soft one, but it does not rest until it has gained a hearing. Ultimately, after endlessly repeated rebuffs, it succeeds. This is one of the few points in which it may be optimistic about the future of mankind, but in itself it signifies not a little.
He was talking about organized religion, but it applies to the worship of violence as well.
Rest in peace, Tyeshia.
Postscript, February 12, 2015: No sooner do I mention one senseless shooting, but another one materializes. I’m referring to the shooting of three Muslims in an apartment complex near Chapel Hill, North Carolina. In reflecting on the facts that have been made public so far in this case, I find it remarkable that so many people have jumped to the conclusion that the shooting must be a “hate crime” in the current, narrowly skewed understanding of that phrase: a murder motivated by specifically ethnic or religious or ethno-religious bigotry. Perhaps it was, but as of this writing, there’s no evidence in the public domain to suggest that it was, over and above the fact that the victims were Muslims, and the alleged shooter was not.
Why not, for a change, take the available facts at face value and pursue them? At face value, what we have here is a dispute over noise and parking. The shooter alleges that the victims repeatedly made noise and parked in his parking spaces. He had in the past threatened them over this with a gun. We’re told that they, the victims, didn’t report his threats to the police; we’re not told whether he ever reported them to the police before threatening them (a crucial omission, as I see it). Why exactly is it so implausible to imagine that Craig Stephen Hicks shot his neighbors because (a) they kept parking in what he regarded as his spots, (b) they kept making noise when he didn’t want them to, and (c) he had a gun and they didn’t?
That he hated religion and that they were conspicuously Muslim doesn’t necessarily enter–or have to be factored into–the explanatory equation. Maybe this former-auto-parts-salesman- studying-to-be-a-paralegal-at-a-technical-college was just really disaffected, maladjusted, and full of hatred of the ordinary, non-legal-element-of-a-hate-crimes-statute variety. Maybe what enters the explanatory equation is not ethno-national bigotry but competing conceptions of entitlement and/or envy. Or maybe Hicks, the atheist hater-of-God, had trouble understanding why he, the brave atheist in touch with reality, was more gripped by inner turmoil than those young, slim, cheerful sartorially conspicuous submitters-to-Allah across the way who seemed to be so well-liked and well-adjusted to the world. Envy, provocation, and a gun: why isn’t that enough to motivate murder? Religion might well enter the equation, not as Islamophobia but in a different and more subtle guise.
I don’t know, of course; I’m just speculating out loud. But so is everyone else. What I find remarkable about our discourse is the impoverished character of our explanatory speculations. Three Muslims die at the hands of a non-Muslim, and we immediately default to a dialogue of the deaf between partisans of “#muslimlivesmatter” on the one side, and “let’s talk about Kayla Mueller, ISIS, and Obama’s offending Christians by bringing up the Crusades instead” on the other. The father of one of the victims is quoted as questioning the premise that a parking dispute could lead to a shooting. With all due respect, that premise itself is what needs to be questioned. If there’s such a thing as road rage, or people going “postal” in a bureaucratic office, why is it so hard to imagine one deranged person shooting someone over a parking space?
Some commentators on the right have had relatively sensible things to say, but even so, a diluted version of the underlying problem remains. To grasp the nature of the specifically right-wing version of that problem, go back and consider the now-forgotten Armanious family killings in Jersey City in 2005. For years, anti-Islamist ideologues like Daniel Pipes and Robert Spencer insisted that the case was a sharia-inspired murder. The case was brought to trial, and resulted in one ordinary felony murder conviction (of a non-Muslim named Edward McDonald). The obvious problem with the case was the paucity of evidence involved. Rational people are reticient or at least cautious when the evidence is sparse. Not our right-wing ideologues: lack of evidence hasn’t stopped Daniel Pipes, author of the 1997 book Conspiracy, from exploiting anti-Islamic sentiment to generate a conspiracy theory about the case (a decade after the fact) to “demonstrate” the power of sharia in America. He does it because he knows, cynically, that there’s a hunger for it on the part of people willing to believe what they want to believe regardless of how the evidence sits. We have William James to thank for the legitimization of willing to believe, but we have years of debased discourse on religion and ethnicity to blame for the hunger that motivates it. It’s time to try something else.