Two Murders in Iowa

What the reactions to the brutal killings of Mollie Tibbetts and Celia Barquin tell us about the state of anti-immigrant politics in 2018.

Celia Barquin Arozamena competes in the first round of the U.S. Women’s Open Championship and Mollie Tibbetts poses for a photograph.
Celia Barquin Arozamena competes in the first round of the U.S. Women’s Open Championship at Shoal Creek, Alabama. Mollie Tibbetts of Brooklyn, Iowa, poses for an undated photograph. Photos by John David Mercer and USA Today Sports and social media via Reuters

Over the past few months, the heartbreaking, jarringly similar murders of two young women have offered an interesting case study in toxic media bias. Both happened in Iowa.

The first case is the murder of Mollie Tibbetts, a 20-year-old psychology student at the University of Iowa. Tibbetts, a young woman with a broad, generous smile, disappeared while she was out for a run along a country road in Brooklyn, Iowa, on the afternoon of July 18. Her body was found a month later, hidden under cornstalks in a field. Autopsy results revealed that she died of “multiple sharp force injuries.” Local police identified a suspect: 24-year-old Cristhian Bahena Rivera. The man, who had worked for nearly half a decade on a nearby farm, turned out to be an undocumented Mexican immigrant.

Once Iowan authorities confirmed Bahena had been in the country illegally for years, the Tibbetts case blew up. President Trump spoke repeatedly about the murder, transmuting, as is his wont, an individual tragedy into a supposed symptom of a nonexistent epidemic of immigrant crime in America, extending the crimes of one to the many and penalizing the universe for the misdeeds of the particular.

Fox News’ Tucker Carlson soon echoed the Trumpian theme, focusing on Bahena’s immigration story rather than on the crime itself. Fox & Friends jumped on the bandwagon as well, repeatedly debating the killer’s immigration status. Sean Hannity was soon joined by the illustrious Sebastian Gorka, who immediately turned the Tibbetts murder into a political argument, calling for the building of the border wall and deploring sanctuary cities. The appalling political use of Tibbetts’ death extended to Republican lawmakers. Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton, long an immigration hard-liner, used the murder to blast the country’s immigration enforcement. In the end, the blatant nativist storm only abated after the most improbable of voices—Rob Tibbetts, Mollie’s father—called for temperance in a moving column for the Des Moines Register. This kind of outrage has defined Donald Trump’s incessant anti-Mexican, anti-immigrant rhetoric from the beginning of his campaign. On the day he launched his presidential bid, it took Trump about 100 seconds to begin bashing Mexico, describing the country as crime-ridden, corrupt, and the source of dangerous illegal immigration.

He hasn’t stopped since then. And outlets like Fox News have been complicit in Trump’s most noxious anti-immigrant rhetoric, continuously reinforcing nativist falsehoods, like the patently incorrect idea that immigrants are more prone to commit crimes than native-born Americans. Worse, Fox News regularly exercises a blatant double standard: Whenever there’s an immigrant involved in wrongdoing, the network leans in, using the crime as a useful argument in the toxic politics of nativism. It does not apply the same criteria when the culprit is not an immigrant.

Several weeks after Tibbetts’ death, Iowa has been shaken by another brutal murder. The victim this time was Celia Barquin Arozamena, a 22-year-old civil-engineering major at Iowa State and an immigrant champion golfer who had recently won the European Ladies’ Amateur Championship, representing her native country of Spain. Barquin had also just played in the United States Women’s Open. She excelled at Iowa State, where she was named Female Athlete of the Year and known as a “spectacular student-athlete” with a fierce competitive spirit.

A couple of days ago, Barquin, like Mollie Tibbetts had done exactly two months before, set out to exercise. She was playing a round of early-morning golf at Coldwater Golf Links in Ames, Iowa, when a man attacked her somewhere around the ninth hole. Staff discovered her body in a pond, her golf bag lying on the fairway nearby. Barquin had been assaulted and stabbed multiple times in the head, neck, and torso. In the afternoon, local police caught a suspect, Collin Daniel Richards, a 22-year-old homeless man who had been living in an encampment surrounding the golf course. Richards has a long criminal record, including drug abuse and a history of violence against women.

While being as horrendous a crime as the killing of Mollie Tibbetts, Celia Barquin’s murder has not elicited the same kind of response from America’s conservative media or its politicians. There have been no outraged tweets nor indignant segments trying to criminalize all of the homeless community for Richards’ atrocious, individual action. President Trump has not bothered to mention the case, even though Barquin’s death has been front-page news in Spain. Of the two senators from Iowa, only Joni Ernst commented on the case. In a tweet, Ernst made no mention of Barquin’s murderer, focusing instead on the victim and the impact the crime had on the local community and her alma mater.

Her reaction to Mollie Tibbetts’ murder was, well, quite different.

What explains the disparity? How can two analogous crimes elicit such different reactions? Why is it that Celia Barquin’s stabbing has not resulted in a propagandistic tarring of troubled Americans like Collin Daniel Richards—the homeless, those afflicted by drug addiction—while the Mollie Tibbetts case opened the door to abject nativist fearmongering, demonizing America’s undocumented immigrants? Why hasn’t the homicidal collapse of one man become an excuse to criminalize the many, like it happened just a few weeks ago with Cristhian Bahena? The crimes themselves are not that different: two deranged men stealing the lives of two vibrant young women. The difference lies in the perverted political usefulness of nativism. In the words of Rob Tibbetts:

To knowingly foment discord among races is a disgrace to our flag. It incites fear in innocent communities and lends legitimacy to the darkest, most hate-filled corners of the American soul. It is the opposite of leadership. It is the opposite of humanity. It is heartless. It is despicable. It is shameful.

Yes. It is.

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