08/06/2012 05:27 pm ET Updated Oct 06, 2012

The Wisconsin Sikh Killings and an America Worth Fighting For

It's been barely two weeks since the mass murder in the movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, and here we go again. These incidents always shock - or rather titillate - the American public briefly, then quickly fade to the level of white noise and lore. Remember the Virginia Tech campus rampage? I do too. I was shocked and appalled at the time, and so were you. But over the past five years, it has blended into the pop-cultural wallpaper behind a string of more recent outrages. Truth be told, we already knew two weeks ago that Aurora too would swiftly move offscreen, because we know how our dysfunctional society operates.

When I wrote about Aurora on the Huffington Post, I was taken to task for emphasizing a negative fact that mainstream America almost completely failed to acknowledge: that the killer was not a Muslim. "This is not a point to be made," wrote reader Robert Arredondo. "Those with political agendas who commit acts to perpetuate their social, religious, political goals by organized means are considered terrorist. A lone gunman overcome by madness or anger is not." When I directed readers' attention to an article by the Washington correspondent of the leading Pakistani daily Dawn, quoting a voice mail on the cell phone of a DC-area cabdriver named Rasheed as saying "Someone killed 12 people in a theatre in Aurora, Colorado. Please pray to God that the killer does not turn out to be a Muslim," reader Sam Baxter replied snidely: "Meanwhile, the rest of us were praying for the victims and their families. It is not all about you, believe it or not."

I insist that the point I was making is one to be made, because I insist on trying to face the political aspect of Aurora - and now of the mass killing in suburban Milwaukee. As long as American society continues refusing to address the issue of gun control in any serious way, and law-abiding, taxpaying, contributing U.S. citizens who are Muslim, or brown, or otherwise "foreign," feel compelled to apologize for who they are and live in fear because of an unfair stigma, every one of these incidents will be inherently political.

Politics in a divided society is never safe or comfortable, but it's necessary. In fact, the less safe and comfortable it is, the more necessary it is. Eugene McCarthy made this point in The Year of the People, his book about the tumultuous events of 1968 in which he played an honorable leading role: that sometimes it's necessary to emphasize not unity but division. The division I would emphasize is between those Americans who lean on platitudes and would sweep our society's native violence under the carpet yet again, and those who know that we can no longer afford platitudes.

Eugene McCarthy is an apt figure to cite in this context. Where is the Eugene McCarthy of this election year? The two presidential candidates, one of whom already holds the office that is supposed to be the very embodiment of American leadership, both have exposed themselves, post-Aurora, as brazenly craven to the gun lobby and other political bullies. Apparently real leadership will have to come from elsewhere. The problem is that those who, like Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, like Salmaan Taseer in Pakistan, step up at dangerous moments to provide real political leadership, often end up getting shot.

If America is ever going to re-unify as a coherent national society, it must do so around a consensus on the right answer to this question: Do we want to be a society based on freedom and mutual respect, or one governed by brute force and kept in check by fear? Here's another, related question: Are there principles that are more fundamentally American than the right to bear arms? If we can't find or agree on some, then we're in real trouble.

So we come around to the specific incident that took place on Sunday morning at a Sikh gurdwara, or temple, in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. It is being dealt with, ominously though I believe correctly, as "domestic terrorism." Among the first things the public learned about it is that the killer was a white male in his thirties. A difference between him and the killer in Aurora is that the Colorado killer is in his twenties. Neither is a Muslim. The Wisconsin victims are Sikhs, not Muslims - but did the killer, and do most Americans, know that Sikhs and South Asian Muslims are different (and even historically antagonistic) communities? The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel quoted a Sikh eyewitness as calling it a "hate crime." If he turns out to be right, then I venture that it was a hate crime not against Sikhs in particular, but against brown people in general, with an anti-Muslim subtext. If we fail to address it, aggressively and nationally, as such, it will be to both our shame and our loss.

Both of the recent mass killings hit close to home for me: my parents live in Colorado and I have friends in Aurora, and I grew up in the idyllic all-white town of Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, 43 miles from Oak Creek. I'm as white as any other white person, and neither more nor less American than anyone. I cherish the Wisconsin that I grew up in. And, as an American, I'm prepared to fight for the America that I want to live in.

The movements of half a century ago for civil rights and against the Vietnam War - at once nonviolent and assertively political - should have taught us that such an America is worth fighting for.

ETHAN CASEY's next book, Home Free: An American Road Trip, will be published next year and is available for pre-purchase. He is the author of Alive and Well in Pakistan: A Human Journey in a Dangerous Time (2004), Overtaken By Events: A Pakistan Road Trip (2010), and Bearing the Bruise: A Life Graced by Haiti (2012). He is also co-author, with Michael Betzold, of Queen of Diamonds: The Tiger Stadium Story (1992). Web: or Join his email list here.