How Do We Talk About the Wisconsin Sikh Temple Shooting?

6 years ago
This article was written by a member of the SheKnows Community. It has not been edited, vetted or reviewed by our editorial staff, and any opinions expressed herein are the writer’s own.

Two weeks ago, a gunman entered a movie theater in Colorado and killed twelve people. In the days following the shootings in Aurora, there were discussions. We spoke of inadequate gun laws. Or we argued that this had nothing to do with guns. Mostly, though, we felt guilty because we shouldn't really be talking about it like this at all.Sunday, in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, six members of a Sikh gurdwara were killed when a lone gunmen armed with semiautomatic handguns opened fire into a crowd of worshippers. the shootings in Aurora and in Oak Creek exist as our unwanted little "What the hell just happened?!" twins, like two major "surprise deaths" that occurred in my family.

Aug. 7, 2012 - Phoenix, Arizona, U.S - People join hands in prayer during a prayer service at the Arizona Interfaith Movement offices in Phoenix. Arizona Interfaith Movement consists of 25 different faith traditions. They hosted an interfaith Prayer Circle Tuesday night where attendees offered moments of prayer in their own faith tradition for the victims of the massacre at the Sikh temple in Wisconsin last Sunday. About 60 people attended the service. (Credit Image: © Jack Kurtz/

Grief: Personal Versus Public

At different times in my childhood, I lost two very significant members of my family: my maternal aunt and my paternal uncle. It was at those times that I learned that there is more than one kind of loss. There is the loss that one feels because any death reminds us that our number is coming up soon, but there's also the loss that resides in the reality that the space of that dead person will remain forever unoccupied. I remember watching the adults in my life grieve that moment, each one processing differently. Some wept and fell inside themselves. Some were angry and sought out people to blame. There was a lot of tension within the family because people were sad and didn't know how to say, "I'm sad, this thing that happened scares me, I don't want it to happen again, but I know that it ultimately will... I just don't know when." 

There's something about the unexpected that brings out the truth in us. 

Surprise strips us of the notions of who we are and we're left only with unfiltered expressions of ourselves. I've noticed that most adults deal with tragedy and surprise in the same way every time. In other words, we all resort to the same behavior, even if the circumstances are different.

Patterns make processing easier. Here's this bad thing that has happened to you, so are you going to ruminate about how you're going to process it and whether existing patterns are appropriate or are you going to just feel what you feel? I find feeling what I feel more time efficient. I like to have my grief processing out of the way as soon as possible.

But. I don't know that this is appropriate in terms of its application to public tragedy.

We've been surprised by a turn of events in which a sacred space has been violated by unnatural and violent death.

Given the close time proximity of their occurrence, we're falling back on our patterns. Those of us, myself included in this group, who tend to grieve through addressing policy reform (read: gun control) are doing that, those of us who grieve through actual grieving are doing that, and some of us are adopting the "this is definitely the end of the world, I'm buying freeze dried food" plan.

Subpar Discourse #1: The Art of (Un)Fairly Targeting a Minority

Some things you can't do much about -- in this case, you can't do much about the fact that you're going to feel sad when people die or that you feel scared when places like worship spaces and movie theaters are now suspect. There are, however, small things that we can do that don't require large amounts of effort except in that they require navel gazing and verbal discipline.

For example, the discussions that differentiate Sikhs and Muslims: are they borne out of simple good intention to help people who may misperceive the two as being similar, or is the media using the distinction to imply something Rinku Sen of ColorLinespointed out:

"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."

This discourse of how a Muslim is not a Sikh and how Sikhs are a "peace loving people" distracts from the more important point that even if Sikhs were awful, war loving people, it's horribly unfair that someone just walked into a temple of theirs and shot at them. Nothing they are or are not will ever justify or negate what has happened to them. This particular discussion distracts from the point that they were targeted because many Americans have been living on a free pass that exempts from the crime of ignorance regarding the different.

When my husband was a child living in India, Indira Ghandi, the Prime Minister was shot by her bodyguard who was a Sikh. Tariq, who has an intimate familiarity with the violent and bloody targeting of minorities, the violence and fear that accompanies it. His experience of watching neighborhood men, both Hindu and Muslim, stand guard outside the homes of their Sikh neighbors also illustrated the love and bravery in the human spirit.  "I don't understand why the media here only takes opportunities to discuss people in the context of these events," he said to me tonight. "Why don't people already know about Sikhs, why do they wait until something bad happens to take that opportunity?" I'll add to his sentiment by saying that if I met a genie who were willing to grant me three wishes one of them would be that the media would assume their responsibility to educate the population of America regarding her diversity so that we wouldn't be distracted with having to play catch up when something like this happens.

< p class="p3">Sikhs have been in North America since 1848. CNN just told you about them. Chew on that for a while. When CNN juxtaposes Muslims and Sikhs and talks about "peace", it highlights two ways in which it has failed us as an information service to the public.  First, they failed when they didn't teach us about how "peaceful" Sikhs (or Muslims) were before these events took place and second they fail when they create an environment in which the discussion of a group being "unfairly" targeted is remotely legitimate. Our participation in the failed discourse and refusal to call out its absurdity is, of course, our failure. 


Subpar Discourse #2: Oh, He Was Just Craaazy. Whew!

As someone who has a medical diagnosis based on anxiety and who's close to individuals with more "dramatic" diagnoses, I'm irate with these conversations. They offer an artificial sense of absolution that is very far from helping us discover the real truth behind these incidents.

Is it too far fetched to assume that everyone who has ever killed someone is either a little "mentally ill"? Who in their right mind would take another person's life without considering the ramifications of their behavior? Forget the esoteric, "I shall not take a life" argument against murder, and just focus on the pragmatic "I don't want to be someone's prison bitch" argument. When you engage in the palliative effects of blaming a tragedy like this on "mental illness," the conversations that need to be had are suffocated beneath the rhetoric. When we blame mental illness for a shooting like this one or that of Aurora, there are two things that happen: mental illness becomes further stigmatized and we absolve ourselves of the responsibility of exploring the contexts in which these deaths occur.

How We Get There is As Important As Where We're Going

A white, middle aged man named Wade Michael Page walked into a gurdwara and shot six Sikh worshippers. Page's body was tattooed with a 9/11 message and he was part of a white supremecist group. It is unclear whether he confused the Sikhs with Muslims. I don't know. I will tell you this, though, his actions don't exist in a vacuum. He breathed the air that we all breathe and participated in the same discourses that we do. 

There is no, pardon the phrasing, silver bullet when it comes to discussing surprise tragedies. There is no one answer. Our job as a conscientious members of society is to thoughtfully and carefully evaluate the way we talk about this moment. These talks and how they occur are actually more important than the conclusions we come to. The emotional distance that exists between us and the strangers who lost their lives in Oak Creek offers us an important opportunity to reenvision our personal approaches to public grief.

We should, to honor them fully, take it.

Culture, Diversity & Dialogue in America:

A Jew and a Muslim Walk into a Podcast: