It has been a week since three young Black men were killed in Fort Wayne, Indiana. All three victims of these “execution-style” killings descend from immigrant families from the Sudan, two of whom were Muslim. Although the facts of this case are still developing, there is much mystery surrounding the attack. Regardless, the dearth of intelligence has not stopped police from making bold proclamations about the nature of these killings, some of which are deeply troubling and likely to foster further mistrust of police among Muslims and African Americans.
Police have admittedly little information about the shootings, including how many people were involved in the attack or the motives, but this is hard to tell from their statements. For example, the Chicago Tribune reported that the city’s public safety director stated that there is “no reason to believe this was any type of hate crime, or … because of their religion or their nationality whatsoever.” Exactly why a police official would utter the phrase “hate crime” in Indiana, is even more mysterious since the state is one of five holdouts still without a law against hate crimes.
Technicalities of the criminal law aside, the real problem with this account is its carelessness. Why say this is not about nationality or religion with so little intelligence? Based on the facts, it seems equally plausible that police might have said, “We are still unsure if this is motivated by hatred based on race or religion.” So why didn’t they?
More pointedly, what is the harm in doing so? To say that the killings were not based on “nationality” says nothing about color. In this respect, the police might be 100% correct that the killings were not about nationality, but this hardly means no hatred was involved. What seems to have escaped the police is that all three individuals were Black, and that the killers may not have even known their nationality. This is unimportant if you hate Black people.
Even more egregious is the claim that the attack was not religion-motivated. Again, why commit to such a rigid posture so early in the investigation? That one of the three victims was not Muslim should not make one rule out religion. For example, what if the attackers simply thought that all three were Muslim? The fact that one was Christian is of little consequence. Who knows if the killer was an atheist who hated believers? Although the scenario may be far-fetched, all these issues make it premature to rule out hatred as a possible motive.
Aside from these analytical shortcomings, the police statements reveal a terrible misunderstanding of the nature of Islamophobia. They seem ignorant of the fact that people are harassed and harangued for being mistaken for Muslim all the time. Have they not heard of American Hindus and Sikhs being attacked and even killed after being mistaken for Muslim? The fear of Muslims is so great that even misidentification can be deadly, what to speak of associating with Muslims?
The police statements also introduce boilerplate language about the killings, which undermine the severity of the crime. For example, they labeled the house a “party house,” as if to cast contributory blame on the victims as party people. More ominous, is the identification of one of the persons “associated with the house” as having “gang involvement.” Exactly what these terms mean is uncertain at best and downright destructive at worse. The identification of the victims with gangs is negligent, borderline reckless and works to mitigate public empathy for the killings. After all, if it was just a bunch of gangsters killed, so what? At least they could have clarified that the suspects may be gang-related, but to leave it hanging at that is deceitful.
One consequence of these statements is Muslims and African Americans will likely become alienated from cooperating with police in the future. This is particularly unfortunate since, as history has shown, community policing efforts and anti-extremism campaigns by the police and FBI are predicated on Muslims stepping forward to cooperate. Building trust for this is made more difficult when it appears that police have no interest in understanding the fears of Muslims, and worse, show little empathy by dismissing what to many could obviously be hate-based killings. Despite that the killings have prompted little media attention and even less concern from Indiana officials, make no mistake, the attitudes of police speak loud and clear.