If the man accused of killing three people in Chapel Hill NC is found guilty, that will prove one thing: atheism itself won't make a person less violent. The accused killer is believed to be an atheist on the evidence of Facebook postings that show him to be an equal-opportunity enemy of all religions. According to neighbors, he is an equal-opportunity misanthrope, angry and belligerent much of the time. Investigators claim that he killed the victims, a married couple and a relative, over a parking dispute. The victims' relatives don't deny that there was a parking dispute, but some insist that there was more to it than that, while Muslim activists and sympathizers across the country demand a further investigation to determine whether the murders should be deemed hate crimes. The issue begs a question of definition. If we recognize "hate crime" as a distinctive category -- many still don't -- how do we recognize it? Most people, whether they accept the idea or not, probably would assume that "hate crime" means that bigotry is the necessary and sufficient, if not exclusive cause of the crime. By this standard, to have committed a hate crime the accused must be shown to have killed the victims only because they were Muslim. The moment the parking dispute becomes known, many observers will doubt whether the killings were hate crimes. But what if it can be shown that the suspect's presumed attitude toward Muslims exacerbated the parking dispute? Would he have killed less overtly religious neighbors over the same dispute? It's impossible to say because we can't rewrite history. Instead, we have the family's testimony that the defendant grew more hostile toward the original neighbor, the man, after the wife, who wore traditional dress, moved in with him. But even if we grant that the man hated Muslims (if not all believers), that fact alone doesn't necessarily make his killing of Muslims a hate crime, or else every interracial or interdenominational killing might also be a hate crime.
The victims par excellence of hate crime are blacks and homosexuals. In such cases, hate crime is presumed to have an implicit motive of enforcing a social or cultural hierarchy: the hate criminal kills the victim in order to keep the victim's people down, or because he assumes an entitlement as a superior person to put them down. He perpetuates a climate of fear that handicaps the oppressed group to which his victim belongs. And he is presumed -- or so I presume -- to have no other motive for killing someone. In the Chapel Hill case, the suspect's reputed atheism probably encourages the perception of the killings as hate crime. While the best-selling new or militant atheists are equal-opportunity "haters" in theory, the present global political climate inevitably makes Muslims special targets for their invective. If an atheist confronts a Muslim and kills him on any pretext, an element of hate is presumed present. Is that true the other way around? If the man of the house had been armed and had managed to kill the armed intruder, or had the parking dispute driven him to take the offensive, would we be calling him a jihadist today? I'm certain that many would, but no one, I suspect, would call this theoretical murder a hate crime because atheists aren't deemed to require (or deserve?) protection from "hate." But at this moment in American history Muslims are more likely than atheists to have a bunker mentality and see "hate" behind every misfortune.
The Chapel Hill killings give some American Muslims a pretext to demand the same sort of informal recognition as a protected group that blacks and gays enjoy. That seems to be the point of the "Muslim Lives Matter" meme that has emerged in echo of the "Black Lives Matter" slogan from last year. In each case, it's no answer to insist that "all lives matter" since the slogans are demands for recognition more than protection. However understandable that may be, it seems irresponsible on another level to emphasize more than the evidence justifies that the three victims died because they were Muslims. From what I've seen, while the women of the family made some concessions to tradition in headgear they seemed overall to be well assimilated into American culture -- the dead wife's bridal photos look very much like any American wedding down to the white dress and unthreatening veil. I don't know how politically conscious they were beyond their support for Syrian refugees, but they don't seem like the sort to foment jihad. Yet the more the survivors claim, however flimsily, that these killings were hate crimes, the more they're likely to stir up jihadists everywhere. It's not like they need much stirring, but they do appreciate every fresh pretext for acting out against the infidel. At this point, I doubt that letting the legal system run its course will make a difference in the international response, but I think Americans would be better off if everyone laid off the hate angle on this case. And if the defendant is found guilty, I'll be glad to apologize as a non-believer for the actions of this gun-toting idiot. We prefer to be defined by our brains, not our hatreds.