Many of my acquaintances and friends are religious. Jewish, Protestant, Catholic, self-proclaimed California Buddhists, Hindu, Muslim, and yes Sikh.
One kind gentleman, probably about 70, whom I met one morning while walking back from taking my young daughter to school and who not surprisingly had the surname of Singh, spoke with me while on a street corner in Alexandria, Virginia about his faith -- which, although I had once visited the Punjab, was the first religiously-focused conversation about the Sikh faith in my life. In those 30 minutes I gained a great deal of respect for the quiescence that inhabited his soul and space.
We had stopped at the same traffic light before crossing King Street, and I (as I am wont to do) started a random conversation, this time about the Sikh community in Northern Virginia. He, bearded and wearing a turban, was clearly Sikh. Briefly we sat in front of a CVS while he explained that the last ten years (this was in late 2011) had been difficult. He said that he and his son who also lived in Northern Virginia had been repeatedly insulted in those years, and that even when visiting stores he had been forced to ignore racial slurs from all sorts of people. He said he was still worried. We exchanged business cards, and I had not heard from him subsequently.
A day after Oak Creek, I suddenly received an email from Mr. Singh.
God has given up on human beings, he wrote. His message read as if Bergman had been directing or Strindberg had written it. Dark to say the least. God has betrayed us, abandoned us. This did not sound like the man I had met, but it was indeed his email address.
I replied arguing that, despite Oak Creek, God didn't sign on as a 24/7 security service. And, further, the shooter had met his justifiable end. Ah, but Mr. Singh then pointed that this heinous act had occurred in a temple of worship and that the temple's president had, himself, been murdered.
After these exchanges I realized Mr. Singh and I were not on the same wavelength. Both of us were saddened by yet more mass killings. However, despite his erudite demeanor, professional standing, and global experience, he had no understanding of the social milieu into which he and his family had moved from the Punjab.
Here, people carry concealed guns, and regard them with religious reverence. They will carry their Glocks at the moment of "Rapture". Here, there are many extremists a la McVeigh, Holmes (allegedly), and now Wade Michael Page. Wow, and I forgot to mention other male, white, mass killers (the list is too long). They are alienated, sick, and will kill, one at a time or dozens. Coming from a peaceful, contemplative culture, Mr. Singh doesn't "get" America. He believes in a dream, not the reality. Likewise, those who went to see a film in Aurora, Colorado apparently thought in the first seconds that the horrible reality was part of the myth on the screen and sound track.
There are many Americas. Very few truly exist. Some immigrants come for economic opportunity and find ugly prejudice and immense inequality. Or, like my Norwegian ancestors, saw their farm fail and the Civilian Conservation Corps of the Roosevelt era their only survival. Others grow up in idyllic surroundings, only to realize that their air is polluted and BP's oil surrounds them.
But the most egregious falsehood about America is that we are peaceful and law-abiding.
I wish Mr. Singh's dream America were true. It will never be true unless we fight domestic terrorists, and eliminate weapons from shopping carts that can kill scores of worshippers and children, not deer, squirrels or birds. Why can we not do so?
This week there were no mass killings in the United States. Alas, we cannot be sure that next week will be the same. The menace is within us. And it is not a menace confined to one group, race, class; a doctoral student, a military psychiatrist -- this is not an inner city problem but one distinctly "diversified" throughout America.
I wrote back to Mr. Singh, told him I was very, very sorry, and asked him to forgive this society into which he had brought his children.
Daniel N. Nelson is an international consultant based in Northern Virginia.