Sunday, August 12, 2012

Oak Creek and its aftermath

PRESIDENT OBAMA spoke at the White House from the Oval Office on Aug. 6. “I think all of us recognize that these kinds of terrible, tragic events are happening with too much regularity for us not to do some soul-searching and to examine additional ways that we can reduce violence.”

This wasn’t a commiseration with the victims of the Aurora, Colo., theater shootings of July 20. The president was talking about the latest American tragedy, one whose targets weren’t random moviegoers attending the premiere of a major motion picture, an incident that points to the more insidious poison of ethnic xenophobia.

Six Sikh worshippers were shot to death on the morning of Aug. 5 about 11 a.m., at the Sikh Temple on South Howell Avenue in Oak Creek, Wisc., just south of Milwaukee. Three others, including a police officer, were wounded in the incident. The shooter, Wade Michael Page, a troubled 40-year-old Army veteran, was wounded by police but committed suicide moments later.

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The motive behind Page’s decision to murder Satwan Singh Kaleka, Paramjit Kaur, Suveg Singh Kattra, Ranjit Singh, Sita Singh and Prakash Singh is, for now and pending any notes or manifestos Page may have left behind, unknown.

But he’s hardly unknown himself. Page’s actions have been followed by the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center for years, mostly because of Page’s apparently deep involvement with the white supremacist movement and that movement’s malignant “white power” music scene.

Mark Pitcavage, ADL’s director of investigative research, told The Daily Beast that, since late 2011, Page had been a member of the Hammerskins, a racist organization Pitcavage called “the big dogs of the white-supremacist movement.”

Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center, told The Daily Beast that Page also tried to establish some relationship with the National Alliance, which he described as “by far the most important hate group in America.”

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Adherents of the Sikh faith are not Muslims. Sikhism, a monotheistic religion, founded in the 15th century in the Punjab region of Pakistan and India, is one of the world’s largest religions, with between 20 million and 30 million followers, the fifth largest in the world.

Among the thoroughly misinformed, Sikhs are confused with Muslims because of a general assumption related to their appearances. Male Sikhs wear turbans and beards and mustaches are common.

It’s not the first time that such confusion, or willful ignorance of the facts, has happened in this country before. On Sept. 15, 2001, in the fearful, hair-on-fire days after 9/11, Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh gas station owner, was shot to death in Mesa, Ariz. The assailant, Frank Silva Roque, apparently believed that Sodhi was a Muslim — because of his turban and beard.

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WHAT COMPOUNDS this tragedy is its apparent xenophobic indifference. We’ll never know, of course, but it may be that Page knew the difference between Sikhs and Muslims and just didn’t care.

To go by his time in the orbit of white supremacists, and the seriousness he brought to their mission, Page may have just been ready for his own private war against people of color.

Given the rhetoric of the “white power” movement, persons of any color outside his own would probably have been enough. The turbans and beards common to the men of the Sikh faith just made them visible targets of opportunity. Something that Attorney General Eric Holder understands.

“Too many Sikhs have been targeted and victimized because of who they are, how they look and what they believe,” Holder said Saturday at a memorial in Oak Creek. “That is wrong, it is unacceptable and it will not be tolerated.”

“No matter where you worship, no matter what your background, as Americans we are one,” echoed Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.

President Obama said “It will be very important for us to reaffirm once again that, in this country, regardless of what we look like and where we come from [or] where we worship, we’re all one people, and we look after one another and we respect one another.”

But beyond the necessarily anodyne comments of the empath-in-chief, there’s a frightening sense of dread aroused by the Oak Creek killings, a dread that’s in addition to the horror and outrage of the events themselves. It’s the dread that, by virtue of their frequency, we may become almost inured to such violent nativist acts in the national life. It’s that fear of the next assault on religious tolerance.

Like the one that took place on Monday, one day after Oak Creek, in Joplin, Mo., when an Islamic mosque burned to the ground under circumstances the authorities have labeled “suspicious” — the second such fire there in less than five weeks.

Like the assaults on religious tolerance recorded by The Associated Press — the more than 700 religiously-inspired attacks on Sikhs in the United States since Sept. 11, 2001.

Image credits: Man in prayer outside Oak Creek temple: News screengrab via Wade Michael Page: FBI. Satwant Singh Kaleka, Paramjit Kaur: WITI.


  1. Satwant Singh Kaleka

  2. Amen. And amen. Thank you for reading.


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