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Thoughts from Chapel Hill: Violence as a Way of Life

02/13/2015 01:33 pm ET | Updated Apr 15, 2015

I live on the outskirts of Chapel Hill (across the tracks, literally). It's been a heartbreaking time for everyone here, a frightening time for many Muslims (and those who might "look Muslim") in the region, and also a time of stirring, heartfelt solidarity and shared mourning. At a vigil at UNC Wednesday night, which was so full I couldn't hear the words from the stage but so hushed we could hear one another breathe, it was the perfect American ordinariness of the victims' family photos that brought me to tears.

People have been quick to interpret these horrible murders. Here are a few thoughts on how the world looks from here.

A few thoughts:

1. The acceptance of violence - as a mode of fantasy, of self-expression, of catharsis - and of the tools of violence, especially the handguns you can carry almost anywhere in this state - is pathological in American culture. It's everywhere, from body language and micro-aggressions on up. In this cultural ecology, sick and hateful people will turn to it because they can. It makes every kind of alienation and bigotry more dangerous.

2. It is almost unimaginable that the identity of the victims didn't figure in the hateful motives of the murderer. As insightful people have pointed out, even racial lynchings were not usually bare identity-based attacks, but "punishments" for "infractions" against white supremacy. No matter what the immediate spur of a crime, who you attack is not neutral or random. Any triple murder is full of hate, and hate is both opportunistic and savagely selective.

3. At the same time, it's the job of police and prosecutors to be as minimal as they can in describing the motives of a crime under investigation, especially where (as with hate crimes) motive could be part of the prosecution. The reasons are very concrete: official speculation about religiously specific motives could make it harder to prosecute the killer later because it would be seen as prejudicing the process. Legal process is deliberately artificial and separate from cathartic and speculative public debate. When that's not true, law people aren't doing their jobs. (I know it's a rotten time to be talking about police and prosecutors "doing their jobs," but nonetheless, these are their jobs, and they generally do more good by following rules and protocols than by violating them.)

Today, when news and opinion move so fast, official responses can seem slow even when they aren't, and the pressure to form an opinion can overwhelm the need to grieve. Those of us fortunate enough to be alive here are still finding room to reflect on the violence of bigotry and the larger culture of violence that is its symbiotic host.