Why revisit a tragedy?
On Oct. 5, it would be exactly two months since Wade Michael Page, a United States army veteran, picked up his gun, went to a nearby gurduara (a Sikh place of worship) in Oak Creek, Wis., and started shooting the worshippers. He killed six Sikhs and injured others, including Lieutenant Brian Murphy of the Milwaukee police who tried to stop him. And then Wade Page killed himself.
I thought it time to take note of this, at a point when the distress of the community had subsided but a bit before the craziness of the upcoming presidential election engulfed us.
Killings, such as this, are neither new nor isolated. We only need to explore some recent examples: Oklahoma (1995), Columbine (1999), 9/11 (2001), Virginia (2007), Fort Hood (2009) Arizona (2011) and Colorado (2012), among others. Not so long ago, the lynching of blacks was not so uncommon and hateful anti-Semitic actions and messages not so rare. Often such events claimed more lives than the one in Wisconsin.
Sikhs are a small minority in the U.S. and likely will remain so no matter where they live in this world. They have been in this country for more than 100 years, yet, they remain largely unknown -- like new kids on the block.
After 9/11 Sikhs were routinely mistaken for Arabs and Muslims. How soon we forgot that of all the terrorists that attacked us on that fateful day none wore a turban. Even in the Middle East it is a rare Muslim who does. And Sikhs are not Muslims, Hindus, Jews, Christians, Buddhists or members of any other religion. Sikhs are Sikhs and that's all there is to it. Yet, mistaken identity on the streets of America is not uncommon.
We forget that one of the first doctors at Ground Zero was a Sikh. We don't remember that Sikh taxi drivers formed a never-ending convoy rescuing people from the site and providing them an endless supply of food. The latter act was in keeping with the Sikh tradition of serving a simple vegetarian meal after every gurduara service, in which anyone and everyone is welcome to freely partake, no matter their religion, caste, color, nationality or gender.
Post-9/11 confusion and mistaken identity have been pervasive. Angry Americans lashed out at us because Sikhs looked different; some saw a stranger with a beard and turban, unlike them. The first person arrested after 9/11 was a Sikh; the first person killed in mistaken identity, too, was a Sikh: Balbir Singh Sodhi in Arizona. There have been so many cases of harassment of Sikhs in streets, schools, the workplaces and airports that I have lost count.
In Wisconsin, the killer was a white supremacist, a skin head, a neo-Nazi driven by the demons in his own head, probably not by questions of mistaken identity. He may have never learned the meaning of the time-honored American motto E Pluribus Unum -- that Americans come in all colors and religions.
Where then is the silver lining to the killings in Wisconsin?
Tragic as the event was I insist on mining it for some light and hope. Guru Granth, the Sikh scripture, speaks of "Dukh daru sukh roag bhaya" (p. 469), meaning that where a life of ease becomes an ailment, suffering and pain may be the panacea.
After the Wisconsin killings, the national response was dramatically swift and different. The news coverage was superbly awesome. News anchors visibly struggled to learn the distinct Sikh traditions so as not confuse them with Muslims or others. Fundamentals of the Sikh faith and a bit of their colorful history were on air the almost 24/7 for several days.
Major news channels zoomed in on the community in Wisconsin; the interviews focused on background information on the gurduara, the community and people -- their tenets and beliefs.
Talking heads obsessed about getting the correct meanings of Sikh practices and traditions. On live TV they debated how to pronounce the word "Sikh" and they got it right, except for Mitt Romney who manhandled it as "Sheikh."
Timing is everything. Perhaps it mattered more now. Election mania was heating up in August and dominated the news cycle. The Republicans at their convention gave a Sikh spokesman 90 seconds of national time when millions were watching. And the Democrats! Michelle Obama traveled to Wisconsin to visit the Sikh community and families that had had lost loved ones in the carnage. The Democratic Convention had many Sikh delegates.
President Obama issued a proclamation and ordered that flags fly at half mast. The full federal and state machinery spun into action to provide the material and psychological support needed by the survivors. A Congressional hearing with some of the survivors, along with nearly 150 religious and civil rights representatives explored the larger issues and lessons. The Department of Justice decided to create an anti-Sikh hate crime registry.
This complex society is decidedly not a hateful culture. It is accepting of minorities, no matter where they come from. The arc of our national values bends unmistakably towards progress. We are not so much a melting pot as we are a mosaic or a multi-instrument orchestra that, when well and wisely led, creates heavenly music. Sikhs, too, have a small but significant place in it.
I am more hopeful here than anywhere else, including the land of my birth.
The price we have paid seems horrendous but it is not unlike what other Americans, who came here from across the world, paid the piper. This has been our turn, the cost of a little recognition of our individuality. Sikhs are no longer the outsiders looking in.
The Sikh community responded positively to the events in a manner consistent with the Sikh concept of forgiveness. The Wisconsin gurduara reopened within days. As always, all were welcome there, whether Sikhs or not.
Sikhs remembered to include Wade Michael Page in their congregational prayer -- not to damn him but to pray that he may rest in peace. The Sikh teaching asks that all may flourish, regardless of their shortcomings and irrespective of their faith, whatever it is or is not.
Two Sikhs from California, Didar Singh Bains and Balwinder Singh Malhi, presented a reward of $100,000 to Brian Murphy, the Wisconsin Police Lieutenant, who was critically wounded in his exemplary stand to stop Wade Michael Page.
All across this nation, churches, schools and universities commemorated the events by candle light vigils and interfaith meetings all over the nation. At New York University where I have taught for more than 40 years, faculty and students showed their solidarity by donning turbans for the day.
I have been in this country since 1960 -- a good 52 years. Believe me such initiative and positive responses are rarer than hen's teeth. I can't resist an odious comparison with November 1984 following the assassination of the Indian Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi. Within 48 hours almost 3,000 Sikh men, women and children were killed in India's capital Delhi, while the police stood by. The entire story still lies shrouded in ignorance and has not emerged 28 years and over 10 Indian government Inquiry Commissions later.
A question that haunts me is this: True that the Bill of Rights guarantees us the right to bear arms and that this is not negotiable. But where does it suggest that rights should be free of any responsibilities? Even the simplest right like the one to drive a car does not come totally unconnected to prerequisites and conditions with the full force of law behind them.
If our two presidential hopeful, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, do not have the gumption to initiate a national conversation on this direct challenge to American values, how will they ever manage the many problems of our complex global existence?
I look at the Wisconsin killings and their price and value to Sikhs. At a personal human level the price of each life is awesome; it can never be met. But the greater national sensitivity and awareness that has resulted is of inestimable value. Now Sikh Americans are better known to their fellow citizens; the onus is ours to carry the message forward.
I don't mean to sound heartless but in the Sikh narrative of its martyrs, the Wisconsin killings would be remembered as a small price paid by Sikhs; a gigantic benefit to Sikhs worldwide and to American society.