Home Social Justice Opinion: On the Nazareth Machete Attack and Speculation

Opinion: On the Nazareth Machete Attack and Speculation

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On the evening of Feb. 11, a man entered Nazareth Deli on Hamilton Road in Columbus and spoke briefly to an employee. Less than an hour later, the same man re-entered the restaurant and, according to Columbus police Sgt. Rich Weiner, “immediately began swinging a machete at customers and employees inside. There was no rhyme or reason as to who he was going after as soon as he walked in.” Four people were injured, one critically — though thankfully none were killed — and the suspect was shot shortly after by the police.

The thoughts and prayers of us here in the Athens community go out to those affected by this violence, especially the owner of the store, Hany Baransi, who has graciously catered Ohio University events over the past couple of years, including last year’s Arabian Night.

Interestingly, the events described above are not what were recounted to me by my roommate, a day later and 80 miles to the south. While most of the story I heard was correct, there were two glaring contradictions that strike me as profound. First, I was told the suspect wielded a machine gun, not a machete. Second, the suspect’s motive was described as a “Muslim Arab hate crime against a Christian Arab.”

Any spontaneous and traumatic scenario such as this one is followed by a void of information. We know something has occurred, alerted by sirens, blips on our phone and “breaking news” segments — but we don’t know what. That void, that blank space, is cause for great anxiety because our imagination has infinite room to fear.

We feel an emotional panic to fill that space with something, with anything. We feel a need to explain. Especially through social media, we have the ability to collectively construct a narrative that gives order to the unknown. We speak, we type, we explain and we fill the anxious blank space with substance. In a word, we speculate.

However, the information we use to fill that void is not necessarily accurate. Our goal is not to describe truth, but to quell fear, and the resulting narrative is a reflection not of the actual events but of our anxieties stimulated by emergency. In panic, we fill the blank space with expectations — how we think these things probably go. Often, we fall to stereotypes and generalizations of both people and situations because those are our only points of reference.

Take the “machine gun” twist in the story as an example. Somewhere between Columbus and me, the weapon changed from a machete to a gun. I don’t think this transformation is inconsequential. Along the chain of storytellers, someone described the weapon as a “machine gun” because, in our society where mass gun violence is a norm and gun access is easy, that’s how they expected an attack to be carried out. In a situation of limited information but anxious urgency, they filled the blank space with what they expected.

The machine gun reference is mostly harmless and simply illustrates how speculation works in such a situation. In the end, if there is something to be grateful for in this situation, it’s that the perpetrator didn’t have a gun and was limited in his violence.

However, when our speculation reaches into the ambiguity of motive, the information we place in that void reflects the anxieties of a community and has real political and social implications. When the story reached me, it was described as a hate crime by a Muslim Somali against a Christian Israeli. At the time I write this, we have no idea if this is true.

This retelling reflects not reality but a confluence of anxieties that we as a community are working through. I won’t expand on those here, but the truth is that as of right now, especially with the suspect having passed away, our perception of his motivation is speculation and nothing more. We must be ever so careful with our assumptions because they infiltrate our minds and influence our biases. In this situation the consequence of our assumptions will fall not on the attacker, but on the 50,000 Somalis or thousands of Muslims who live in the Columbus community and are associated with him by the arbitrary markers of nationality, race and religion.

Violence divides, but our communal reaction to violence has the potential to destroy. I encourage us all to reflect on how we try to fill the void of information in times like these and to confront erroneous speculation when it appears. Our thoughts and prayers to the victims, to the Baransis at Nazareth Deli and to the perpetrator whose torment we can’t begin to imagine.

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