As speculation swirls over what motivated Craig Hicks to gun down three students in Chapel Hill, N.C. earlier this week, President Obama is weighing in to suggest that they were targeted because they were Muslim.
“No one in the United States of America should ever be targeted because of who they are, what they look like, or how they worship,” Obama said in a statement on Friday, a day after the FBI opened an investigation into whether the shooter violated any federal laws.
Hicks, 46, shot the three students, Deah Barakat, 23, his wife, Yusor Abu-Salha, 21, and her sister Razan Abu-Salha, 19, on Tuesday at the Finely Forest condominiums in Chapel Hill.
It is still unclear what Hicks’ motive was in the murders.
Muslim groups and the victims’ families have asserted that the shooting was an anti-Muslim hate crime. Little evidence has been offered to support that claim other than speculation from the victims’ families and Facebook posts Hicks, an outspoken atheist and progressive, made in the past condemning organized religion.
Mohammad Abu-Salha, the father of the slain sisters, told reporters that the three students had run-ins with Hicks in the past. Abu-Salha said that Hicks was hateful towards the three students and that his daughters speculated that he disliked them because of their appearance.
But Chapel Hill police, Hicks’ wife, and his neighbors have suggested a different motive.
Police said that Hicks, who was a full-time student at a technical college at the time of the shooting, had been engaged in a long-running dispute with neighbors and his neighborhood association over parking issues. (RELATED: Wife Of North Carolina Shooter Denies Hate Crime Accusations)
Hicks’ neighbors have described him as hostile and aggressive. A neighborhood meeting was held last year to address his demeanor, but nothing came of it. It was also reported that a local towing company stopped responding to tow requests from Hicks because he called too frequently.
In a press conference on Wednesday, Hicks’ wife dismissed accusations that her husband was motivated by anti-Muslim hate. She subscribed to the theory that he committed the heinous act because of his problems with parking at the condo.
Hicks reportedly shot the three students in the head while they were in their apartment. The location of the shooting lent evidence to the suggestion that Hicks was motivated by more than a parking dispute, Minnesota U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress, claimed in an interview on Thursday. (RELATED: Muslim Lawmaker ‘Confident’ North Carolina Shooting Was About More Than A Parking Spot)
In his brief statement Friday, Obama quoted one of the victims, Yusor Abu-Salha.
“Growing up in America has been such a blessing,” Abu-Salha said in an interview shortly before her death. “It doesn’t matter where you come from. There’s so many different people from so many different places, of different backgrounds and religions – but here, we’re all one.”
By weighing in on what may have motivated Hicks, President Obama is potentially — if the hate crime theory does not pan out — setting himself up for a replay of the fallout from Trayvon Martin shooting. Obama weighed in on that shooting in March 2012, saying that “if I had a son, he would have looked like Trayvon.”
Obama was criticized heavily after it emerged later that Martin likely assaulted his shooter, George Zimmerman.