Recently, I was engaged in a polite online conversation with a friend about the attacks on the US embassies in Libya and Egypt, when a third person interjected to proclaim that the Middle East should be “taken over” and bombed (as if not already happening in several places in the region, but commentary on this is beyond the purview of this blog). The conversation ended when this individual then indicated that he was “ready to commit some hate crimes” as a response to the protests and violence in the Middle East.
Most likely, the interrupter to our conversation joking in extremely poor taste, however given the shooting rampage on Sikhs at the Gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, in August, I could no longer continue in the conversation. I left it, somewhat shaken. The friend with whom I was initially conversing before the intrusion sent me a private message of apology immediately.
I also needed to restrain myself from feeling the same way as many of the Sikhs I’ve heard from since Wisconsin. It is not said openly very often, but once in a while, a fear has been expressed within private Sikh circles:
“I can no longer trust white people.”
“Everytime I see a bald white man, I worry about what he’s thinking.”
“We need to have armed security in our Gurdwaras.”
By far, the more common response by Sikh Americans to the shooting has been to reach out to neighbors and greater community. The level of engagement by our community with media, officials and politicians has been unprecedented. However, the murders of those innocent Sikhs while they worshiped have left many Sikhs with feelings of vulnerability and trepidation.
The man who pulled the trigger in those murders was a white supremacist, and his act validated in the worst way already-existing fears about living as a visible minority that has been targeted in the post-9/11 era. For many, he has come to represent the realization of the threat to our safety that is in the back of our minds as we go about our days.
Certainly, it is unfair for anyone to condemn the vast majority of people for the actions of one or a few of the ilk of the murderer whose bigotry knew no bounds. Any yet, it seems to be a natural response. It happened several times before, notably to Japanese Americans during World War II.
After 9/11, Sikhs also became a target for vengeance and retribution. Balbir Singh Sodhi’s murder, eleven years ago, is recognized as the first post-9/11 hate crime . His murderer branded all Middle Eastern-looking men (or what the murderer thought was Middle Eastern) as the enemy, and he took it upon himself to exact justice. If his action is not as common, we know that the mentality is more so than we would wish.
Many Sikhs are sadly familiar with the experience of being the object of scorn of and fear from other people as a result of a terrorist attack. I have experienced this myself as our turbans have become a target. And now, with the news of the events in the Middle East dominating the airwaves that included the deaths of Americans, one wonders if the antagonism towards Sikhs or Muslims has been amplified. For the intruder to our conversation above, the hate crime – or at least the threat of it — has apparently become a justifiable course of action on American soil towards Americans who have no connection to the events occurring half a world away.
Ironically, those Americans who have suffered the brunt of post-9/11 backlash must also learn from that experience in the post-Oak Creek, or post-8/5, environment. We should not allow ourselves to do what was done to us: prejudge innocent people for the crimes of a few, no matter how devastating.