02/12/2015 01:34 pm ET Updated Apr 14, 2015

Perfect Martyrs


Standing at the vigil in Chapel Hill last night for the three people killed the day before, it was hard not to be struck by how impressive, indeed exemplary, their far-too-short lives had already been. Deah Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Mohammad Abu Salha and Razan Mohammad Salha were community-minded, warm, loving and loved. It was clear that they touched many, many lives and were dedicated to service - to making meaningful sacrifices in order to improve the lives of the less fortunate. In death, we tend to air brush the blemishes and highlight further the most attractive features of the souls of the departed. Certainly, Deah, Yusor and Razan had their moments of frustration, irritation -- when they were less than their best selves. Were that not the case, they wouldn't have been human. But the breadth and heartfelt depth of the testimonials made clear that they were, indeed, uncommon in life.

That they were such good people is a blessing to all whose lives they touched. That, in a sense, they had to be so good speaks to a deep, pervasive problem about how Muslims are judged in America and in other societies in which they are a minority. Like other non-dominant ethnic groups, Muslims face an inescapable and insidious representation problem: that the actions of one of their number won't simply reflect the character of the individual in question. Instead, those actions will be seen as confirming or disconfirming evidence about the group more broadly. In this regard, minorities always carry an additional burden in their private and public lives - they are really never *just* themselves. Instead they are exemplars, for good or bad, of a larger social entity.

A particular privilege of being a "normative person" in a culture -- part of the dominant group -- is the freedom not to carry the weight and expectations of all those others with whom you are instinctively associated. Non-normative individuals in America, whether Blacks, Latinos or Muslims have no such luxury. If they don't lead exemplary lives, the consequences of their perhaps less-than-stellar conduct is likely to have cascading effects for those who look, or dress or sound like them.

Muslims face their own distinctive form of the representation problem. Widely viewed as professing a faith that too readily gives license to "terrorism," each heinous act carried out in the name of Allah -- however warped the interpretation necessary to justify those acts - requires a kind of public penance from *all* Muslims. That in order to be regarded as safe, credible, accepted and acceptable members of the human family, Muslims are called upon to denounce the actions of an infinitesimal number of killers, just as crimes committed by some black men are deemed evidence of a larger pathology to which all black men -- unless they demonstrate otherwise -- are prone. They are, in other words, guilty until proven innocent.

Marking, celebrating and memorializing the beautiful lives of Deah, Yuzor and Razan is, in addition to whatever comfort and solace it can bring the aggrieved, an opportunity for all of us who didn't know them to reflect on how we ourselves might be better people. But there's additional work to be done to avoid falling into the trap of representation. Were they not the magnanimous, generous, selfless people they were, the three young people shot dead in Chapel Hill two days ago would have been no more deserving of their awful fate and the killer's actions would have been no more justified. In sum, Muslims are no less entitled to be ordinary than anyone else, no less entitled to be something other than martyrs to salve the prejudices of the rest of us.