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A Wake-Up Call for American Millennials: What Chapel Hill Should Teach Us About Citizenship

02/18/2015 11:11 am ET | Updated Apr 20, 2015

And I want them to see what the true essence of Deah, Yusor and Razan was. And it was optimism, it was hope, it was love, it was wanting to help anyone and everyone in their local communities and communities abroad...They all had so much to offer and I want to make sure we continue that legacy for them in their name, in their honor, and that all of us as Americans collectively not let their deaths go in vain.

These were the powerful words that Dr. Suzanne Barakat -- mourning the death of her brother Deah Barakat, one of the three victims of the Chapel Hill shootings of February 10, 2015 -- offered in her solemn interview with CNN's Anderson Cooper. The execution-style shooting of the three American Muslim students rattled us to the core. For a minute, let us pretend that the conversation about whether this was a hate-crime (it most likely was) or not (but it most likely was) is off the table (also, check your privilege when you come to sit at said table). In Deah, his newly-wed wife Yusor Abu-Salha and her younger sister Razan, we had three young, bright, community-raised and volunteerism-oriented Americans who were murdered in cold blood. Yusef Al-Jarani, one of our fellow co-organizers of the candlelight vigil we held in Chicago in tandem with other cities, stated it perfectly: "these were some almost cartoonishly good people. As Cooper himself eulogized last week, this was not just a loss for the tight-knit American Muslim community; rather, this was a loss for our entire nation."

This is also a wake-up call if there ever was one. Deah, Yusor and Razan are not to be simply lionized as exceptions to put on a pedestal for us to mourn and then forget as the news cycle drowns their memory out and as we bounce reactionarily from one tragedy and hashtag to another. They are to be viewed as the standard and standard-bearers of what it means to be citizens, both in a global and local sense. They raised funds to help Syrian refugees. They volunteered to help the homeless attain dental care across North Carolina. And so much more. They came from a community which encourages this type of outwardly thinking and dedication to service. What struck us with their deaths (and we're still in shock) was just how much they reminded us of people we knew from our own respective communities. And that's the point -- they were just like me and you. As in, just as they felt uninhibited in their desire to serve others, we too bear the onus of privilege and opportunity to carry the torch that they wielded so beautifully. When we write Facebook statuses such as "Today, we are all Dean, we are all Yusor, we are all Razan" -- we had better honor that with the commitment to service and excellence that Dean, Yusor and Razan recognized to be so universal and crucial to the fulfillment of the very thing that we seem to drag around forgetfully: our sense of citizenship.

Citizenship is the tie that binds and what bound those of us who came together last week in mourning nationwide. When Yusor spoke to North Carolina Public Radio this past summer, she commented on how accessible citizenship was to her: "And that's the beautiful thing here, is that it doesn't matter where you come from. There's so many different people from so many different places and backgrounds and religions -- but here we're all one, one culture. And it's beautiful to see people of different areas interacting, and being family. Being, you know, one community." We were one community last week in Chapel Hill, in Chicago and anywhere where we responded to this hateful (and certainly) bigoted action by lighting a candle and coming together with our fellow human being.

But what about the morning after? What will we be then?

Will we millennials be "one community" when there isn't a hashtag de jour to capture our attention? What are the chances that we will be mindful of the plight of others when the mainstream media is painfully slow in bringing those stories to the forefront? Will ad hoc coalitions crystallize only when we're in crisis mode? Or will we have the bonds of solidarity in place beforehand, ready to protect one another, ready to proactively address what ails or isolates our communities, and solidly in place to maintain an atmosphere of inclusion, altruism, love and trust? This is what we need to ask ourselves in the wake of this tragedy. We cannot afford to sputter through what lays ahead in a reactionary, "deer in the headlights" fashion.

True power is what happens when the collective buys in, acts as one unit, one human body. Does hate-speech and bigotry stand a chance against an active and engaged citizenry -- one that holds the principle of togetherness front and center? If your answer is "No", then you're not looking hard enough: there were legions of people like Deah, Yusor and Razan out there -- from all backgrounds, Muslims, atheists or otherwise -- carrying candles sputtering in the cold, shaken to the core because three of their own were taken from them. Just as those candles fought to defy the Chicago weather, we defy the hatred out there by answering the call to unity and service.