This past Sunday, a white supremacist named Wade Page killed six Sikhs (while wounding three others, including a police officer) at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. The names of the dead were Sita Singh, 41; Ranjit Singh, 49; Prakash Singh, 39; Paramjit Kaur, 41; Suveg Singh, 84; and Satwant Singh Kaleka, 65, who was the center’s president.
This shooting comes two weeks after James Holmes opened fire in a movie theater showing The Dark Knight Rises. We will hear many more stories about Holmes, who is going through the trial process now. Page was killed by a police officer, and so his story will likely disappear in a few weeks. It shouldn’t though.
This story has seen a great deal of coverage, though nothing on the level of the Holmes murders. There are lots of reasons for this. This has been a very busy few days, with the Olympic and the Mars Rover landing, not to mention leftover coverage of the awfulness of Chik-Fil-A. If you were shocked by Holmes’ actions, though, I urge you to pay close attention to this story and not let it go.
These shootings illustrate at least three problems in modern American society that should be addressed. The first is total laxity in gun control laws. And sorry, but there’s really no argument here. These weapons are simply too easy for the mentally imbalanced to get, keep, and use. There is simply no reason for any society, even one with a strong hunting tradition, to allow these guns to be bought and sold so easily.
The second issue is a clear lack of resources going into mental health institutions. The people committing these crimes are clearly mentally disturbed, and we need to ask who is reaching out to them and how. In total more than $2 billion have been cut from mental health services nationwide over the last two years.
The third is the explosive rise in approved hatred towards Muslims, Sikhs, and other people of Middle Eastern or South Asian descent.
For purposes of this post, I’m going to focus on the third, but before going on, let me just say both of these shootings are part of larger trends in the United States. The U.S. averages 20 mass shootings a year according to the Brady Campaign, which has compiled 62 pages of such shootings that have occurred since 2005. These are, in short, part of a much larger crisis in America.
Similarly Page is part of a large and growing problem in the United States. Right wing and white supremacist domestic terror has been on the rise at least since Barack Obama was elected, as has anti-Muslim bigotry. Sikhs, while not associated with Islam, have frequently been targets of such attacks. There were at least 700 attacks on Sikhs in the last 11 years, according to the Sikh Coalition. (CNN, by the way, has decided to refer to these crimes as “bias crimes,” because apparently the term “hate crime” is just too politically sensitive these days.) Meanwhile, attacks on Muslims have been ongoing. On the same day as the attack on the Sikh Temple, a mosque in Joplin, Missouri was burned to the ground. This was not the first time, by the way, this mosque was attacked. Prior attacks on this mosque were not thoroughly investigated by the police. Again, these are not isolated incidents. Organized hate is on the rise in America.
Writer Wajahat Ali wrote for Salon this morning on the rise in hate groups in America. The numbers are terrifying:
This extremist violence and fear-mongering does not exist in a vacuum. The Southern Poverty Law Center recently reported the highest number of hate groups ever recorded in U.S. history, with nearly 1,018 active groups. Furthermore, anti-Muslim hate groups have increased 300 percent in the last year, and the FBI reported a 50 percent increase in anti-Muslim hate crimes. The reasons for the record rise in hate groups are due to the faltering economy, changing racial dynamics in America leading to a minority-majority country, and the election of Barack Hussein Obama.
In the past year, Peter King and Michele Bachman have turned themselves into nationally known commodities by trading on anti-Islam bigotry, and claiming that Islam in the U.S. is highly radicalized and has infiltrated the U.S. government. I have heard neither of them comment, by the way, on this shooting in Wisconsin. (Though, as always, the Onion, has its own clever take on Bachmann.) President Obama and Candidate Romney have come out to condemn the shootings, but frankly neither has gone as far as I think they should. When Timothy McVeigh blew up a government building in Oklahoma City, Bill Clinton came out to explicitly condemn an ideology that suggests that the U.S. government should, in effect, be destroyed. That is what the nation needed at the time. Barack Obama has, at no time in his public life, explicitly condemned such intolerance in a widely seen public address. He largely ignored attacks on his “foreignness” during the ’08 presidential campaign, and waffled in 2010 when right wingers attacked the possibility of a “YMCA with prayer center” being built somewhere near the site of the 9/11 attacks. (The “Ground Zero” Mosque.) In the wake of such large scale violence, that is simply not acceptable. He needs to talk about freedom of religion in this country. He needs to talk about not just tolerance but acceptance of a wide range of views. As the most significant public figure in our government, he needs to make that sort of symbolic gesture.
John Nichols discusses this issue at the Nation:
Contemporary leaders, who so frequently fancy themselves to be heirs to the best of the founding tradition, must provide far greater leadership when it comes to assuring that people of faith, of every faith, shall not “suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief.” That leadership will not attack the separation of church and state, nor favor one doctrine above another. It will recognize, finally and unequivocally, that all “shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.”
Open, public dialogue about the roots of American government and culture would do a great deal to change how we approach Muslims, Sikhs, and other people of Middle Eastern and South Asian descent in our country, but it won’t do everything. Government action helps justify such prejudice and hate, and I’m not talking about Bachmann and King.
Just in the past year, the AP revealed that the NYPD has been systematically spying on Muslims in the city, outside of any oversight by just about anyone. They have even spied on Muslims outside New York in Newark and as far away as Miami. In particular, they have targeted Muslim Student Associations and student groups in general. At the national level, President Obama has cultivated an image as a Warrior President by continuing drone warfare campaigns against suspected Muslim terrorists in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, where we have killed dozens of innocent civilians in the last three years. We have set a precedent where we can kill American citizens (Anwar Al-Awlaki) if we suspect them of propagandizing for Al-Qaeda, even if we have no direct evidence that they are involved in any specific crimes. We have kept not only Guantanamo running, but a similar prison at Baghram Air Force Base in Afghanistan, and we have maintained a precedent where suspects (mostly Muslim) can be detained for years on end without charge or little hope of getting released. And while our government has officially ended practices that constitute torture, the CIA still renditions suspects to foreign countries where they are likely being tortured. Meanwhile, the U.S. and Israeli governments are widely believed to be practicing terrorism within the borders of a Muslim country that we are currently afraid of. (Iranian nuclear scientists have been assassinated in large numbers in the past year.) Such violence is expected to continue a year after Osama Bin Laden was killed and long since the original organization of Al-Qaeda has been a legitimate and potent fighting force in the Middle East.
Take a moment to imagine what these sorts of government actions might do to the psychology of a country. These actions are backed with bipartisan majorities in Washington. There has been no mass movement to end such actions. How could we not see anti-Muslim bigotry if this is how our government treats Muslims around the world? By our government’s actions, the government has recognized not just some very radical Muslims but whole nations of Muslims as a threat to the American people.
My point being: When we talk about Wade Page and the rise of hate, we are talking about a whole host of issues ranging from how we treat each other to how we as a nation treat other nations around the world. If we do not push our government to a higher standard of behavior, our people will fall to a lower standard to follow suit.
You can agree or disagree with the points I’m making here, but let’s talk about them. Because there’s no way we as a nation can deal with a crime on this level and the reasons behind it unless we discuss it. I get that people might be fatigued in the wake of the Holmes shooting, and it’s good to focus on the good news in the world. (And I’m going to talk about the Mars Rover in a little bit.) But don’t let incidents like this fall to the wayside, or we’ll just see this all happen again.