It could be terrorism, but we don't yet know. It could be someone who has a beef with Sikhs. It's too early to talk about gun control. These statements ran in a continuous loop through my head yesterday, even when I wasn't watching coverage of the mass shooting at an active gurdwara in a suburb of Milwaukee. Throughout the day, the hollowness in my solar plexus signaled grief and the tightness in my throat signaled panic, and I felt deep, deep resistance to the notion of saying anything about it. What is there to say that isn't a cliché?
Details are going to emerge in the coming days, but I already know what they'll amount to. A white man, in his 40's, nursing resentment over 9/11 for more than a decade, planned for a long time to kill some "enemies." The guns will turn out to be legally acquired, or if not, so accessible as to make the law meaningless. The man will turn out to be mad. In the debate, people will argue that the cause is racism...no, it's gun control...no, it's mental health. It is impossible for us to navigate the deadly tangle of all three.
The Sikh community has been thrown into high visibility under the saddest possible circumstances. Sikhs are generally of Indian origin, practicing a monotheistic religion in temples called gurdwaras since the 16th century. Sikhism is not a sect of Hinduism or Islam. Sikhs grow their hair as a signal of their devotion to God.* The religion emphasizes unity and peace among all people.
I've known many Sikhs, though there are only 750,000 in the U.S. I'm often struck by how devout and considerate they are, regardless of age or gender. I have learned a lot by following the Sikh Coalition, as well as United Sikhs and the Sikh Activist Network. Sikhs have been a prime target for racist violence since 9/11, and this is not the first murder of a Sikh by a misinformed, angry white man. Earlier this year, 92 members of Congress pressed the FBI to start counting hate crimes against Sikhs.
Only CNN attempted continuous coverage yesterday, and I'm grateful that they tried. Yet that coverage was so generally devoid of Sikh voices that it just reminded me how ill-equipped the media are. The "expert" they turned to most often was the sincere but inadequate Eric Marrapodi of CNN's Belief Blog. He kept saying that Sikhs were not Muslims, but were often mistaken for Muslims and "unfairly targeted." The first time he said it, I thought, wow, that's unfortunate phrasing and he'll stop using it after he realizes or someone points out the implication that Muslims can be "fairly" targeted. But no one ever got a clue. Islamaphobia was never mentioned, much less condemned for the ignorance and violence that it spreads.
Murderous insanity can infect any community, and maybe that leads people to call these senseless acts of random violence. But of course they are neither senseless nor random, and the vast majority of such incidents here involve white men. Racism holds a terrible logic, for a concept with no grounding whatsoever in science or morality, yet too many white people don't see any patterns.
I think about the young woman who taught me to speak English in a tiny rural schoolhouse, the widow who gave me my first peanut butter and jelly sandwich and the father of my best friend who was so kind to me while I was growing up. Yesterday, did they quietly hope that the shooter wasn't one of theirs? Probably not, even though the link between violence, masculinity and whiteness is well-established. White men seem to be in deep crisis, and white people would do well to deal with it, as Tim Wise points out again and again. I implore of my white friends, when your nutty uncle or classmate goes off about some set of foreigners, you must make a fuss, cause a family crisis, become unpopular, speak up. We cannot do this for you.
I despair for our country on days like these. How long before paranoia and fear, recast in the language of moral fortitude (stand your ground!), cut too deeply into the beautiful American friendliness, open-mindedness, and generosity that I have grown up with? How many Trayvon Martins, Brisenia Floreses and Balbir Singh Sodhis must there be before white folks question whether suspicion of brown skin is justified? Must I arm my mother and send her to the shooting range if she wants to wear a sari in public? In two weeks, 20 families have lost a beloved member. Are we going to have 20 more every month for the foreseeable future?
There are things we need to do.
We must limit gun access. Gun proponents recite "guns don't kill people, people kill people" as fluently as immigration opponents cry out "illegal means illegal." Gary Younge pointed out on July 20, after Aurora, that it's never a good time to talk about gun control in this country, and people are dying while we refuse to act. That has to change.
Americans need a real education about the world. If our public schools aren't going to provide it, then it needs to take place on TV, in churches, in the newspaper.
We need to make sure that the mental health system is well funded and progressive enough to provide support wherever it is needed.
But none of that will be likely unless, in our grief and fear, we also muster up clarity and outrage. Right now--before the public debate is recaptured by questions of which politician said what to whom.
*A previous version of this post incorrectly suggested that only Sikh men grow their hair to show devotion to God.