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Was the Vermont Shooting of 3 Arab Students a Possible Hate Crime?

By Jordan Walker, J.D. | Last updated on

Three college students of Palestinian descent were shot while walking near the University of Vermont campus over Thanksgiving weekend. The gunman, now identified as Jason J. Eaton, has pleaded not guilty to three counts of second-degree attempted murder.

The Burlington Police Department has yet to discover the motive behind these crimes, so it is too early to say whether Eaton's actions can be classified as hate crimes. Is it a coincidence that the victims are Muslims who were speaking Arabic and wearing keffiyehs when the crime occurred?

A keffiyeh is a traditional Middle Eastern scarf usually worn around the neck or head. It's often seen as an important symbol of Palestinian support and identity (although it originated in Iraq). Because of the current Israel-Hamas war, it seems like the black-and-white checkerboard headscarf may have been a possible motivating factor in the shootings.

Who Are the Victims?

The victims' families have revealed that the three young men of Palestinian descent are childhood friends who attended the Ramallah Friends School together in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Two of them are U.S. citizens, and the other is an American legal resident.

The longtime friends were heading to a post-Thanksgiving holiday celebration when they were gunned down. Two of them sustained serious injuries in the stomach and chest while the other was shot in his lower extremities.

Hisham Awartani

Hisham Awartani, a Palestinian-American student at Brown University, is described as a “math genius." In an interview with NPR, his parents said they thought he would be safer in the United States. He was the most critically injured of the three.

Kinnan Abdalhamid

Kinnan Abdalhamid was born in Illinois. He's currently a junior at Haverford College in Pennsylvania. He's also a registered emergency medical technician (EMT).

Tahseen Ahmed

Tahseen Ali Ahmed is a student at Trinity College in Connecticut. He's studying mathematics and IT.

What are Hate Crimes?

Generally, hate crimes are intentional criminal acts meant to cause harm or intimidate someone based on a protected characteristic. Hate-motivated crimes are typically violent and committed against an individual because of their race, ethnicity, national origin, or religion.

In Vermont, as in all states, hate crimes receive enhanced sentencing. Under the state's hate-crime law, prosecutors must prove that Eaton:

  • Committed a crime
  • Acted because of the victims' affiliation with a protected category (meaning their race, color, religion, national origin, or ancestry)

Eaton has already been charged with three counts of attempted murder. To determine whether his actions constitute a hate crime, prosecutors must establish Eaton's actions were based on the victims' protected category status. In this case, it could be because they appeared to be Palestinian. Also, they don't have to show Eaton committed the crime solely because of the victims' Palestinian descent, just that he was at least partly motivated by it.

Additionally, Vermont's hate-motivated statute also imposes civil liability upon defendants who commit hate crimes. This means the victims can possibly file civil lawsuits against Eaton seeking compensatory and punitive damages, along with attorney fees and legal expenses. To prevail, they're required to prove:

  • They suffered damages, loss, or injury as a result of the shooting
  • Eaton maliciously shot them because they're Palestinian (or based on one of the other protected categories)

Why Did Eaton Shoot the Three Friends?

Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger released a statement acknowledging the shooting was potentially motivated by hate. According to a police affidavit, the three friends were walking together, smoking cigarettes, and speaking in mixed Arabic and English. Two of them were wearing keffiyehs. Eaton, a white man, stood nearby staring at the victims before he walked up and started shooting. He fled the scene and was later arrested at his apartment by FBI agents and the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). According to NBC News, Eaton refused to identify himself or answer most questions but did admit to having a handgun in his apartment. He told the agents he had been waiting for them and repeatedly requested a lawyer.

Eaton's motive remains unclear, at least to the public. In an interview with The Daily Beast, his mother described him as very religious and said he frequently reads the Bible. Burlington Police Chief Jon Murad has urged people not to draw premature conclusions until after a full investigation. However, he did say “there is no question it was a hateful act" during a news conference this week. Each of the victim's relatives has requested that law enforcement treat the shooting as a hate crime.

Anti-Arab and Anti-Palestinian Crimes Are on the Rise

The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee says the amount of violence directed towards Arabs, especially Palestinians, is at an all-time high. Last month, a six-year-old Muslim boy was stabbed to death with a military knife in Illinois. His mother was also attacked but survived. It was later determined that they were targeted due to being Palestinian Muslims and the ongoing fight between Hamas and the Israelis in Gaza.

Groups like the Council on American-Islamic Relations have emphasized the importance of preventing the spread of Islamophobic content on social media platforms and other media outlets. The White House recently released a statement from President Joe Biden condemning acts of violence and hate in America.

After just celebrating a holiday embracing the spirit of “togetherness," it's particularly tragic to see potential hate crimes on the rise.

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