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.