Fixing blame ain't easy

motiveI wrote last week about the death of two teenage girls at the hands, allegedly, of their Muslim father. Rod "Friend of this blog" Dreher now says that the girls' death was an honor killing. Now The Dallas Morning News, the paper for which Dreher works, has written a tantalizing follow-up story. It quotes the sisters' great aunt as saying that she believes the girls' death was, in fact, an honor killing:

Gail Gartrell, the sisters' great-aunt, said Saturday that Mr. Said had physically abused the two girls for years. Around Christmas, the girls' mother -- Ms. Gartrell's niece -- had fled because of Mr. Said's threats to kill the girls after he learned they had boyfriends, she said.

"She ran with them because she knew he would carry out the threat," Ms. Gartrell said. "This was an honor killing."

She said her niece returned after Mr. Said told her that he would move out so they could reconcile. Within a few days, she said, the girls were dead.

Earlier in the story, reporter Tanya Eiserer repeated that the girls' brother had disputed the idea that their deaths were the result of an honor killing. So were the deaths an honor killing? Readers are presented only with a he-said/she said, so it's impossible to say.

Dreher makes good points about the story. He argues that the funerals of the girls, in which an imam called on parents to have stronger families, was evidence of an honor killing. He implies that the reporter should have mentioned. Certainly, but surely he would agree that the reporter should not have labeled the girls' death an honor killing.

I had a different complaint about the story: the absence of information about the father, Yaser Abdel Said. Said appears as a shadowy figure rather than a flesh-and-blood human. I think the reporter needed to ask his friends, colleagues, and acquaintances about the man. Was he religious or not? Did he talk about his daughters? Did he worry about a perceived loss of status? Was he the type of man who commit a rash act of violence?

I am wary of assigning any motive to anyone, not the least an alleged murderer. How can we know someone's motive unless he, she, or their friends reveal them? Determining a person's subjective state is very difficult, a job that district attorneys and priests hearing confessions are much more likely to answer than journalists. Assessing a person's motive is rewarding, but it's also difficult -- and should be seen as such.

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