Why Has Obama Declined to Comment on Chapel Hill Murders?


As the nation continues to soul-search after the killings of three young Muslims in Chapel Hill, the Muslim-American community is looking to public officials to provide leadership to combat rising Islamophobia and ensure the safety of all citizens. 

Some politicians have been quick to offer condolences, such as Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN), the first Muslim-American elected to Congress. Even former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney offered his remarks in a brief tweet on Wednesday, saying the victims were “with the angels.”

One voice that has been missing is President Obama's. The White House has not issued any statements on the matter. On Thursday, a reporter questioned Press Secretary Josh Earnest about the case:

REPORTER: One is, has the President been briefed on the situation in Chapel Hill with the shootings and the deaths of those Muslim students? And does he have any reaction—does the White House have any reaction?

JOSH EARNEST: There’s no specific reaction from the White House. I know that this is something that local law enforcement is investigating. I know that they, based on published reports, they have a suspect in custody. And I know that part of that investigation will include the circumstances that may have led to this act of violence and that will also include the investigation of questions about what motivation this individual may have had. So this is the very beginning of an ongoing local law enforcement investigation, and we’re going to await the results of that investigation before we say anything.

REPORTER: So he’s not been in touch with the families or anything at this point?

JE: No, he has not.

The underlying principle is that the President has not commented on the matter because it's under investigation, and the administration is waiting for the investigation to conclude. But Obama showed no such hesitation after a number of other high-profile murders.

Here's a selection of his remarks after the Aurora, Colorado massacre:

"We’re still gathering all the facts about what happened in Aurora, but what we do know is that the police have one suspect in custody. And the federal government stands ready to do whatever is necessary to bring whoever is responsible for this heinous crime to justice. (Applause.) And we will take every step possible to ensure the safety of all of our people."

He explicitly mentions that the motivation behind the killings is still unknown, but tries to assure the frightened community of its safety.

Here's a section of Obama's remarks on the Ferguson killing, a little more than a week after it happened, before any investigation had been completed:

"As Americans, we’ve got to use this moment to seek out our shared humanity that’s been laid bare by this moment. The potential of a young man and the sorrows of parents, the frustrations of a community, the ideals that we hold as one united American family.

"I’ve said this before. In too many communities around the country, a gulf of mistrust exists between local residents and law enforcement. In too many communities, too many young men of color are left behind and seen only as objects of fear. And through initiatives like My Brother’s Keeper, I’m personally committed to changing both perception and reality. And already, we’re making some significant progress, as people of good will of all races are ready to chip in. But that requires that we build, and not tear down. And that requires we listen, and not just shout. That’s how we’re going to move forward together—by trying to unite each other and understand each other, and not simply divide ourselves from one another. We’re going to have to hold tight to those values in the days ahead. And that’s how we bring about justice, and that’s how we bring about peace."

Again, Obama was seeking primarily to offer healing words to a wounded community. It is not his role to be judge, jury and executioner. But he was able to offer leadership at a heightened moment.

The reason #ChapelHillShooting and #MuslimLivesMatter are trending nationwide isn't because Muslims across the country are terrified of the chief suspect in the shooting, who is now in custody and not a threat to anyone. Muslim Americans are speaking out because they live in a climate steeped in fear and hatred, where one entire political party is dedicated to demonizing them for popularity points and the other can't decide where it stands. 

Obama has never visited a U.S. mosque during his time as president, and it took six years for him to even meet privately with Muslim American activists. His remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast were helpful, but for many in the Muslim community, they were too little, too late. Now is the time for Obama to seize the moment and come to defense of religious freedom and tolerance, before there are more senseless acts of violence.

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