Why the Sikh Temple Shootings Aren’t Treated as Seriously

I’m sharing this excellent New Yorker article by Naunihal Singh in its entirety, for I think it’s spot on.

The media has treated the shootings in Oak Creek very differently from those that happened just two weeks earlier in Aurora. Only one network sent an anchor to report live from Oak Creek, and none of the networks gave the murders in Wisconsin the kind of extensive coverage that the Colorado shootings received. The print media also quickly lost interest, with the story slipping from the front page of the New York Times after Tuesday. If you get all your news from “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report,” you would have had no idea that anything had even happened on August 5th at all.

The tragic events in the Milwaukee suburb were also treated differently by political élites, many fewer of whom issued statements on the matter. While both Presidential candidates at least made public comments, neither visited, nor did they suspend campaigning in the state even for one day, as they did in Colorado. In fact, both candidates were in the vicinity this weekend and failed to appear. Obama hugged his children a little tighter after Aurora, but his remarks after Oak Creek referred to Sikhs as members of the “broader American family,” like some distant relatives. Romney unsurprisingly gaffed, referring on Tuesday to “the people who lost their lives at that sheik temple.” Because the shooting happened in Paul Ryan’s district, the Romney campaign delayed announcement of its Vice-Presidential choice until after Ryan could attend the funerals for the victims, but he did not speak at the service and has said surprisingly little about the incident.

As a result, the massacre in Oak Creek is treated as a tragedy for Sikhs in America rather than a tragedy for all Americans. Unlike Aurora, which prompted nationwide mourning, Oak Creek has had such a limited impact that a number of people walking by the New York City vigil for the dead on Wednesday were confused, some never having heard of the killings in the first place.

The two incidents were obviously different in important ways: Holmes shot more people, did so at the opening of a blockbuster film, and was captured alive. There were also the Olympics. However, it is hard to escape the conclusion that Oak Creek would have similarly dominated the news cycle if the shooter had been Muslim and the victims had been white churchgoers. Both the quantity and content of the coverage has been clearly shaped by the identities of the shooter and his victims.

The relative neglect of Oak Creek was not a foregone conclusion. Although the shooting took place at a gurdwara, or Sikh temple, the narrative of the incident contained enough archetypal elements to be compelling to all Americans. The murders took place at a house of worship on a Sunday. There was the heroic president of the congregation who, even though he was sixty-two, battled an armed attacker, sacrificing his own life. There were the children who sounded the alarm and joined fourteen women huddled in a tiny pantry for hours, listening to the agony of the wounded outside. There were the relatives at home, receiving texts and phone calls from loved ones. There were heroic police officers, a shootout, and the attacker’s death by self-inflicted gunshot.

There is also Wade Page himself, with his hate tattoos, photographs in front of swastikas, and his Southern Poverty Law Center dossier. Page so fits our stereotypes of white supremacists that, if he did not exist, it would have been necessary for Quentin Tarantino to invent him. Page appears to have hated blacks, Jews, Latinos, and probably everything else associated with modern multicultural America. Here is a figure whose malevolence should frighten all Americans, not just Sikhs, in the same way that Holmes should terrify all of us, not just those who watch movies at midnight.

Sadly, the media has ignored the universal elements of this story, distracted perhaps by the unfamiliar names and thick accents of the victims’ families. They present a narrative more reassuring to their viewers, one which rarely uses the word terrorism and which makes it clear that you have little to worry about if you’re not Sikh or Muslim. As a Sikh teaching at a Catholic university in the Midwest, I was both confused and offended by this framing. One need not be Pastor Niemöller to understand our shared loss, or to remember that a similar set of beliefs motivated Timothy McVeigh to kill a hundred and sixty-eight (mainly white) Americans in Oklahoma City.

A week later, post-Paul Ryan, Oak Creek has largely receded from public consciousness, along with the important policy issues it raises. There will be little debate about claims that the Department of Homeland Security has understaffed its analysis of domestic counterrorism in response to political pressure. There will also be little attention to the accusation that the military has repeatedly been willing to accept white supremacists in its ranks. Representative Peter King will continue to hold hearings about the threat posed to America by Islamic extremism while refusing to investigate domestic right-wing groups, even though right-wing groups are more worrisome by any systematic measure.

In the end, the events of Oak Creek are tragic on at least two levels. There is the tragedy inherent in the brutal murders, the heroic sacrifices, the anguished waiting, and the grief of relatives whose lives will never be the same. But there is also the larger one of our inability to understand this attack as an assault upon the American dream and therefore a threat to us all. The cost of this second tragedy is one that the entire nation will bear.

Indeed, as diverse and welcoming as our society can be, many people seem to have a difficult time connecting with certain groups that don’t comport with the “mainstream” American background. To be blunt, the Sikhs are non-white and non-Christian, and are thus subsequently seen as foreign “others.” It matters little that they’re integrated relatively well into their communities, and that they’re some of the most successful and enterprising people in this country.

Despite being a nation ostensibly united by ideas and dreams rather than ethnicity, faith, and the like, most “real” Americans can’t see minorities as being American as well.

My Reflections on Another Senseless Massacre

shooting spree just occurred in Seattle, Washington, claiming the lives of five people, plus the perpetrator. As to be expected, the details are horrifying: the man walked into a café like any other client, then began opening fire at everyone inside. As he fled the scene, he shot and killed a woman at a nearby parking lot, hijacking her truck before driving off somewhere to kill himself.

As in most such instances, the gunman was allegedly mentally ill. It remains to be seen how he obtained a gun, namely whether he stole it from a family member or friend (which is often the case) or managed to purchase it himself (which also tends to happen, as with the 2011 Tuscon massacre).

I know these kinds of incidents are rare, and the number of unfit people who use guns is smaller than the overall population of gun owners. But how many times can we write these off as isolated tragedies before we have a real discussion about the high rate of gun violence in this country? I’m all for gun rights, but every freedom has its sensible parameters for the sake of protecting the public at large (as well as not so sensible ones, but that’s a different story).

And before anyone says it, I’m not letting this single event color my entire view on gun politics in this country; my current musings were triggered by this incident, but informed by the many others that have occurred before it. I know full well that we can’t stop every madman or criminal from slipping through the cracks.  But this sort of thing seems to occur far more than it should, and in any case, gun laws are hardly the only factor involved – plenty of other countries have high rates of gun ownership without approaching our uniquely high level of gun violence.

Personally, I believe much of this has to do with our relatively permissive attitude towards violence in general, exacerbated by the high rate of fractionalization, inequality, and disunity in our society; there is too much fear and animosity between all the different communities that make up our nation. It’s hard to measure if that’s being reflected by our uniquely high crime rate, and I frankly don’t have the time to explore the topic further at this point, but it’s something to consider.

Another point of concern for me was the fact that the killer’s relatives were apparently “not surprised” that he did this. They anticipated that he had the capacity to harm people, and they made no apparent effort to do something about it? As details emerge, we’ll see if they did in fact try, but in any case this raises the issue about how treat mental illness in this country, both institutionally and as a society. It seems that we still don’t take psychological problems seriously enough, nor do we have a developed enough mental health apparatus that could better address such problems.

Indeed, I recall reading how the US not only imprisons more people than most developed nations, but also institutionalizes far fewer people than the Western average – suggesting that people we’re otherwise putting in prison or ignoring should really be given mental health treatment. Of course, that’s not going to change so long as most Americans treat mental illnesses as nonexistent, taboo, or something that doesn’t require “real” medical treatment like physical health problems do.

Finally, as per my morbid nature, I can’t help but ruminate on the sheer horror of this event, as far as what it says about the randomness of death. The people going to that café did not expect that it would be the last time they’d live. Few people who die ever see it coming. And who comes out of a neighborhood parking lot expecting to be shot and killed? As the article mentions, there have been several such incidents of random death in Seattle, including a man getting shot by a stray bullet as he was driving with his family.

I go to cafes, park in public lots, and drive through the streets. I could just as easily be a victim of these random occurrences. It’s terrifying to imagine that, even as I write this, someone could barge right in and shoot me dead. While unlikely, it’s clearly not out of the realm of possibility. The rareness of these incidents makes no difference to the victims – or those who, like myself, are aware that they could be victims.

Reflections On Another Sobering Tragedy

Yesterday, nearly 100 people in Norway – most of them teenagers – woke up to what they would’ve never known was their last day alive. A lone madman fueled by a toxic mix of ideology, and no doubt insanity, was all it took to end so many lives. No matter how many horrible events like this occur, we are always left asking how and why someone could do this (and we never reach a satisfying answer).

Events like this really get to me, especially given how many of them I had to study for my major; International Relations encompassed researching all sorts of conflicts, including terrorism and genocide. Couple all that with a tendency to over-saturate myself with news, and it’s no wonder I respond to all this intimately. While one would think such constant exposure and immersion would have the opposite effect – numbing me to the same extent that veterans become battle-hardened – I find that the opposite is true. Obviously, I’m more detached in a visceral sense: I don’t respond with shock, awe, and raw emotion. But my empathy remains unchanged, especially given my own anxieties about death (my own and others’) and my realization that I could easily be in any given victim’s position.

That is what really disturbs me the most. The perpetrator impersonated a police officer, and was thus able to lure these people to gather around him before indiscriminately opening fire (and in so doing, gaining the distinction of having committed the greatest act of violence on Norway’s soil since World War II). Were we there with the victims, what would have done? Who among us would’ve known there was something up? Speaking for myself, I most definitely would have been among those to cooperate, not knowing any better and not having any reason to fear for my life (after all, how often does a police officer turn out to be a mass murderer, especially in as peaceful and stable a place as Norway?) I could just as easily have been killed in such a deceptive and utterly unexpected matter. And such is often the nature of death.

That’s always what follows from my mind when I read of such things. It could be me. It could be someone I love and who be devastated to lose. You can minimize your chances by avoiding risky activities, substances, and circumstances, but that only gets you so far. There is never any full-proof way to avoid death, and there is absolutely no way our limited cognitive and sensory abilities could ever predict such things. To paraphrase a friend: death is all around us, and it’s amazing we get by without losing our lives. Indeed, events like this are yet another reminder of how frail our existence is. The fact that we need such constant reminders, assuming we even derive such a lesson in the first place, is proof of how detached most of us are from this grim possibility (not that I could blame anyone for not indulging in such morbid reflections).

However, that is the value of this macabre exercise. However much anxiety, paranoia, and sadness it may inflict on me, it allows me to appreciate every second I have on this Earth (all the more precious given that I am agnostic about any sort of after life, and thus live this one as my only).  It’s a big reason why I try to stay optimistic and see the beauty in things, and why I obsess about making the most of my life. An understanding of mortality, however grim and nerve- wracking, and be quite good at boosting your sense of appreciation and spurring you to making sure that your moments on this Earth as pleasurable and fulfilling as possible. I could only hope that the victims of this attack, many of them adolescents, had lead the best lives possible, however short.

A final comment before I conclude my reflections: it’s been noted that this incident has received tremendous – some say excessive – attention, to the extent that the media is being accused of sensationalism. I’m not quite sure how I feel about this claim, though I could understand the contention, and could very well be clouded by my own sympathy.  Whatever the intent of the relevant news agencies, I think they’re just responding to human society’s innate fascination with these sorts of brutal acts. The fact that it was Norway, a country seen as “innocent,” peaceful, and friendly, may also contribute to the sense of shock and interest (after all, the media, in response to relative public apathy, rarely devotes much attention to the everyday tragedies that occur in the “usual” suspects we’ve come to get used to as blighted).  If something this horrible could happen in such a “nice” country, imagine how vulnerable the rest of us must feel? Perhaps most humans are as secretly concerned and fascinated by the prospect of  an untimely death as I am.

In any case, the issue of there being too much attention to this, in light of numerous other stories,  is difficult issue to address and requires a very delicate balance. If such incidents aren’t given attention, it may be perceived as cold, whereas too much attention appears – as we’re seeing – as sensationalist and narrow-minded. I feel strongly for the victims, but immersing ourselves in the grim details of their demise is ultimately inconsequential to them and their loved ones. We should extent are deepest sympathies, feel for their loss, and count our blessings. But there is little else anyone could do, as is the case with any attempt at consoling or trying to make sense of pointless death (and even natural death for that matter).

If I could ever derive any sort of silver limning for myself from such a horrific occurrence, it is how I am left with a strong sense of appreciation for my continued existence in this world. Nothing reaffirms our good fortune to be alive than the realization of our own mortality. It is sad that must take something like a fatal tragedy to do it, but such is the way of humans. That I can sit here and pontificate about the misfortune and death of others, rather than the other way around, is reason enough for me to be infinitely grateful.