Just days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks I sat in a waiting room in downtown Los Angeles when a Sikh man entered. The tension felt palpable as all eyes drifted to the striking man in the turban. Given the diversity of Los Angeles, surely many people in the waiting room recognized the man as a Sikh, but that didn't stop them from eyeing him with suspicion. His complexion, facial hair and head covering conjured up images of Osama bin Laden, even though Sikhs bore as much blame for the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks as Catholics did--in other words none whatsoever. Sikhs, like Japanese Americans during World War II, were simply guilty of "looking like the enemy."
Following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks Sikhs have been the victims of more than 700 hate crimes, according to the Sikh Coalition. And time has done little to make the xenophobia and racism Sikhs face dissipate. Just last year, two elderly Sikhs were gunned down in Sacramento, Calif., the Daily Mail reports. Racists in the same area also attacked a Sikh cab driver. And this year, vandals damaged a Sikh temple in Michigan and a Sikh family in Washington received violent hate mail, according to the Mail. Now, of course, a mass shooting at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin has refocused attention on the hatred Sikhs face. On Sunday, U.S. Army veteran Wade Michael Page allegedly opened fire in the temple, leaving six dead. Police later killed Page, a 40-year-old with a Sept. 11 tattoo and ties to white supremacist groups, according to some sources.
While the FBI is describing the shooting as an act of "domestic terrorism," officials have yet to establish a motive for the killing. Signs point to the killing being a hate crime, however. At this point, it's unclear whether the killer targeted the Sikh temple because he blamed Sikhs for Sept. 11 or because he viewed them as foreigners who didn't belong in his community. Whatever the reason, his hate crime should usher in a period of mourning for the victims, of course, as well as a period for the public to learn more about Sikhism, widely considered a "peaceful" religion. It should also mark a time for people to confront their prejudices and to stand in solidarity with the Sikh community. The Council on American-Islamic Relations has already released a statement remarking, "While details of the attack and the motivation of the attacker are still emerging, American Muslims stand with their Sikh brothers and sisters in this time of crisis and loss. We condemn this senseless act of violence, pray for those who were killed or injured and offer sincere condolences to their loved ones."
Will other groups--Catholics, Jews, Asian Americans, African Americans--also show their support in both words and actions? Will the mainstream news media cover this shooting with the same intensity that it covered the Aurora, Colo., shooting? There have been so many mass shootings in recent decades that Americans have grown numb to stories about madmen senselessly opening fire on innocent bystanders. What makes this shooting different is that it was likely driven by hate. While it's difficult to prevent unhinged people lacking the medical care they need from violently lashing out at others, there are identifiable ways to counter racial and religious hatred. Educating the public about diverse groups counters prejudice and lessens the likelihood people will respond to difference with hatred.