Making Sense of Senseless Violence

August 9th, 2012

Last night, I attended a vigil for the Sikh community and the victims of the attacks in Milwaukee. Of course it is sad and tragic, and I added my prayers to those of the many people of different faiths (and of no faith) who attended.

At the Gurdwara Vigil in Plymouth

Violent fringe groups are troubling, and an irrational person who would commit such an act of terrorism might be so psychologically different from me and those close to me–I can’t fathom doing or even thinking such a thing. But I’ve also been troubled by a common reaction, one I can understand. Many of my friends and other Americans, in discussing this hate crime, have assumed that the killer mistook the Sikhs for Muslims.

To be fair, there’s background to this assumption. The man who killed Balbir Singh Sodhi in 2001 outside of his gas station almost certainly thought the turban identified a Muslim. But Wade Michael Page chose a gurdwara for his attack. Being a white supremacist, clearly, he had hate for most people of the world. I can’t help but think that if he wanted to plan an attack on Muslims, he would have gone to one of Milwaukee’s mosques. We know that he hated Jews, but we don’t talk about whether he thought the gurdwara was a synagogue. We know he hated African-Americans, but we don’t discuss whether he thought the ethnic Indians in the temple were black.

I know people discussing the distinction between Sikh and Muslim don’t mean to be offensive to Muslims. And yet it troubles me that when this act of violence happens, one in which neither the assailant nor the victims were Muslim, we still feel the need to talk about Muslims. It almost implies, when we presume Page was mistaking them for Muslims, that if he’d assaulted a mosque at least he’d be hurting a community that had done something to deserve it. Again, I know that’s not what people mean to imply, but it’s still there.

We talk about hate crimes against Muslims as perceived retaliation for Muslim terrorist attacks, and because Sikhs are not widely known for terrorism, we assume they must be mistakes. And yet, other victimized groups aren’t seen as retaliation. A hate crime against a transgendered person isn’t retaliation for terrorism–it’s an assertion of power, a violent reclaiming of the norm. Hate crimes against Jews are, perhaps in theory, retaliation for the crucifixion, but seriously, that’s not actually what gets people worked up.

And in truth, I don’t think 9-11 is what gets bigots worked up about Arabs. Hateful people will hate those who look, dress, speak or act in a way that’s foreign and weird. When this spills over into violence, rather than making a distinction implying one group deserves hate more than another, we really ought to affirm people’s right to be.

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