This morning as I drove to my office, I saw turbaned Sikhs out for a morning walk in my neighborhood. When I arrived at my destination, I saw our mailman drive by in his UPS truck. He was also a Sikh, wearing a bright colored turban. I waved and smiled. These are my neighbors and friends.
Sunday was inconceivable to me.
Yet, as if on cue, no sooner had I left the quadrennial meeting of the nation’s minority journalists known as Unity, there was yet another test of the nation’s understanding of its expanding diversity.
The shooting at the Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin on Sunday, which claimed six innocent lives, exposed once again the massive ignorance that exists about the new America.
Who indeed is the terrorist amongst us?
Is it A: The foreign-born brown guy in the turban?
Or is it B: The white neo-Nazi All-American skinhead rock singer, whose hate-laced lyrics were masked by what appeared to be an acceptable level of harmless pop malevolence?
We now know that the man identified as the temple shooter, Wade M. Page, 40, was anything but harmless. But not before he was able to legally obtain a semi-automatic handgun and go on a suicidal rampage.
Page, an Army veteran, was the lead singer for two rock bands, End Apathy and Definite Hate, which had been on the radar of the Southern Poverty Law Center since 2006. The civil rights organization was monitoring Label56.com, a hate site that distributed racist rock music, including Page’s bands. And even though the label has now stopped selling Page’s music, it continues to offer up hate from bands like Stormtroop 16, Children of the Reich, Total War, and Bound for Glory.
Here’s how the Southern Poverty Law Center described Page’s band Definite Hate: “A band whose album ‘Violent Victory’ featured a gruesome drawing of a disembodied white arm punching a black man in the face. In the drawing, the fist is tattooed with the letters ‘HFFH,’ the acronym for the phrase ‘Hammerskins Forever, Forever Hammerskins’.”
Page was more than just a rocker acting out some skinhead fantasy. He was for real. The Hammerskins were a dominant force in the racist skinhead movement in the U.S.
But no one knows why Page specifically targeted the Sikhs this weekend.
Maybe he didn’t get to see all the news features written after 9/11 that painstakingly told the story of the Sikhs in an effort to prevent any wrongheaded Islamophobic spillover.
In my neck of the woods in California, home of one of the largest Sikh communities and temples in the nation, I’ve written my share of stories about Sikhs.
But apparently, there can never be too much. There’s always someone who didn’t get the memo.
A monotheistic religion that began in the 15th Century in the Punjab region of India, Sikhism was seen as the answer to the oppressive caste system there. It’s the world’s 5th largest religion with some 25 million followers, 500,000 in the U.S. alone.
Sikhs are not Muslims.
The males use turbans to facilitate the wearing of their long hair, a part of their religious beliefs. The religion also requires Sikh males to carry kirpans, a concealed dagger weapon, which has been the source of First Amendment battles in this country. In New York and Ohio, it has been declared unconstitutional to ban the wearing of the kirpan. Still, the issue comes up, though the kirpan is almost always a ceremonial and symbolic piece.
I doubt in the U.S. there are any recorded deaths by kirpan.
But in Wisconsin, we now have seven more dead from a legally purchased semi-automatic weapon, just two weeks after the Aurora, Colorado shooting that claimed 12 lives.
Shooting sprees have now become so common, it’s easy to become inured. But when it’s mixed with a xenophobic hate targeting a specific minority, we must pay attention. This is homegrown white domestic terrorism fueled by ignorance.
With our country’s growing diversity, it’s more important than ever to battle the stereotypes that continue to burden America, and the likes of Wade Page.
Page, the new face of the white domestic terrorist, may have acted alone on Sunday. But there are many more Pages out there than we think. Sunday’s rampage reminds us that reaching the necessary levels of tolerance and mutual respect remains the perpetual challenge of being a strong, free, and diverse nation.