I was sitting in a Bay Area, California, restaurant when I first learned of the killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan by US Navy SEALs. At my table, we were stunned into silence by news that came completely out of left field. Almost ten years after the 9/11 attacks, Americans finally brought to justice the man behind the attacks.
Video footage and images of bin Laden took over all of the televisions in the restaurant that moments before were showing baseball games. We awaited the statement by President Obama in which he would formally announce that bin Laden was killed in Pakistan, and that the United States had custody of his body. In the booth next to ours, two middle-aged couples had also stopped their dinner as they too were fixated on the television near us, and as we were listening to the President’s statement, one of them blurted out a joke to his companions:
“I bet they found his body in Stockton”, he said, smiling. His eyes did not break from the TV.
The “Stockton” he was referring to was nearby Stockton, California, home of the oldest Gurdwara in the United States. The city is well known for its historic and large Sikh population – among them, obviously, turbaned and bearded men. Whether this man sitting near me knew the difference between bin Laden and the average turban wearer on the street – Sikhs, members of their own distinct faith and who have no association with bin Laden or with terrorist threats to America by Islamic radicals – I could not know. However, in this moment, he demonstrated that the stereotypes that the Sikhs have been trying to overcome since 9/11 are still very much prevalent.
I was stunned. Still trying to absorb the news on the televisions, and with what I thought this man said, I decided not to confront him in this emotionally charged moment. Perhaps I didn’t hear what he said correctly. He never looked towards our table, so I don’t know if he realized that sitting just steps away was another turban-wearing man. What I did know, however, is that our work in teaching Americans about Sikhs is long from over.
As the evening progressed, we watched the images of people gathering in Washington, D.C., and at Ground Zero in New York, waving American flags, singing the national anthem, and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. The outpouring of patriotism, in the manner of what might resemble a frat party, caused me some apprehension. It was only a few days ago that we were reminded of the killing of Balbir Singh Sodhi in Arizona in the days after 9/11, by a man who, to justify his murder of an innocent American Sikh man as revenge for the acts of Islamic terrorists, exclaimed “I am a patriot!”
I began to feel uneasy about the days and weeks ahead.