Mistaken Identities: Hindu Sikhs, Not-Muslims, and Domestic Terrorists

As I heard of the horrific massacre at the Sikh Temple in Oak Creek Wisconsin yesterday, I went online, on Twitter, and to CNN to stay updated. The reports were grim to begin with, identifying at least one white male balding gunman who had attacked worshippers in the temple. The reports became grimmer. The gunman had first been witnessed by several young children. Even grimmer: several adults, including the president of the Temple, Satwant Singh Kaleka, had been shot. Many worshippers, including a number of women and children were still in hiding in the long hours that followed while the police checked whether there were other shooters.

Early on, it was clear that CNN and other media sites had run into a framing problem: How to label the gunman, about whom so little was known? How to characterize the shooting? Was it a ‘hate crime’? Was it “random”? Was it “anti-Semitic”? (Yes, one CNN talking head asked this). As soon as the initial report established that he was white, I wondered whether he would be established as a “loner,” “deranged,” or a “white supremacist.”  I placed my bets on the last category, but only because I didn’t think that Mainstream Media would identify him as a terrorist.

I was wrong.

They did, but only 8 hours later, after a police official described this event as “an act of domestic terrorism.” What was domestic terrorism, the officer was asked? “An act of violence done within the confines of the country…by a person not from another country.”

And even though his definition was legally wrong, his answer was much more revealing. Domestic terrorism is officially defined as

activities that

‘‘ (A) involve acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any State;

‘‘ (B) appear to be intended

‘‘ (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population;

‘‘ (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or

‘‘ (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping; and

‘‘ (C) occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States.’’

(Section 802, USA PATRIOT ACT)

It’s hard to say whether yesterday’s event was intended to “influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion.” the clause says nothing about what the nationality of the perpetrator must be; yet the police official revealed precisely the distinction that has become stuck in the brains of millions of Americans: terrorists are brown. If a terrorist is not brown, he must be a “domestic terrorist.” And if he is white: he is a loner or deranged, or “angry” qua James Holmes, Jared Loughner, the Columbine boys.

Another disturbing discourse was the constant striving to frame Sikhs “properly.” From CNN reporters, to Sikhs who were interviewed, to the general public, Sikhs were constantly misidentified.  One initial Sikh commentator grabbed by CNN described himself and others as “Hindu Sikhs.” This descriptor was picked up by the CNN talking heads, who must have received many critical emails and calls soon thereafter, because they then put on Rajwant Singh, the head of a Sikh organization, who tried to explain it away by suggesting that Hindus often worship alongside Sikhs at gurdwaras.  Ok. But it’s like referring to someone as a Muslim Protestant. No such thing.

CNN, rather than making things better, mucked them up worse bringing their “Public Belief Blog” Bot  (B-cubed) on air for 11 hours (or at least it felt that way). B-cubed panned to a scene of Sikh men worshipping, and pointed to their “head coverings,” as “Indian fashion.” Sikhism is only the 5th largest religion in the world (24-28 million worshippers); by contrast, Judaism has 14-18 million followers. ‘Nuff said. Draw your own conclusions.

B-Cubed’s ignorance was mirrored all over the Internets, from commenters on gawker.com, one of whom mistook Sikhs for Muslims, and was “corrected” by someone pointed out that “Sikhs weren’t Muslims,” but he wasn’t sure what religion they were, or what the major religion in India was.  Seriously.

The mis-framing continued: from CNN commentators offering their condolences by pointing out what a horrific day it was for “the Sikh community.” Why was it not a horrific day for every one of us? For every one of our communities?  Because it happened to “Sikhs,” and not “us.”

There was a constant urge from online commenters to point out that the gunman “probably thought he was shooting Muslims.” This urge, echoed by CNN bots and others alike, took the form of “Sikhs are a peace-loving community.” In fact, this has been a refrain that we have heard constantly since September 11, 2001. We see the same refrain in the USA PATRIOT Act (which has NO similar passages about Muslims, btw):

“SEC. 1002. SENSE OF CONGRESS, Public Law 107-56, October 26, 2001

(a) FINDINGS.—Congress finds that—

(1) all Americans are united in condemning, in the strongest possible terms, the terrorists who planned and carried

out the attacks against the United States on September 11, 2001, and in pursuing all those responsible for those attacks and their sponsors until they are brought to justice;

(2) Sikh-Americans form a vibrant, peaceful, and lawabiding part of America’ s people;

(3) approximately 500,000 Sikhs reside in the United States and are a vital part of the Nation;

(4) Sikh-Americans stand resolutely in support of the commitment of our Government to bring the terrorists and

those that harbor them to justice;

(5) the Sikh faith is a distinct religion with a distinct religious and ethnic identity that has its own places of worship and a distinct holy text and religious tenets;

(6) many Sikh-Americans, who are easily recognizable by their turbans and beards, which are required articles of their faith, have suffered both verbal and physical assaults as a result of misguided anger toward Arab-Americans and Muslim- Americans in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack;

(7) Sikh-Americans, as do all Americans, condemn acts of prejudice against any American; and

(8) Congress is seriously concerned by the number of crimes against Sikh-Americans and other Americans all across the Nation that have been reported in the wake of the tragic events that unfolded on September 11, 2001.

(b) SENSE OF CONGRESS.—Congress—

(1) declares that, in the quest to identify, locate, and bring to justice the perpetrators and sponsors of the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, the civil rights and civil liberties of all Americans, including Sikh-Americans, should be protected;

(2) condemns bigotry and any acts of violence or discrimination against any Americans, including Sikh-Americans;

(3) calls upon local and Federal law enforcement authorities to work to prevent crimes against all Americans, including Sikh-Americans; and

(4) calls upon local and Federal law enforcement authorities to prosecute to the fullest extent of the law all those who commit crimes.

And we have heard it from many Sikhs as well. The strong implication is that Sikhs were wrongly targeted in many tragic events after September 11, from the murder of Balbir Singh Sodhi in Arizona, to many other Sikhs, because they were mistaken as Muslim. Sikhs WERE mistakenly targeted. Sikhs ARE mistakenly targeted. As ARE Muslims—before 9-11, after 9-11, in NYC, LA, or elsewhere.

Sikhs, like Muslims, and Hindus, are peace-loving. And every one of these groups has a violent, radical, political subgroup with whom most in their group don’t want to be associated. Why then, must we keep insisting that Sikhs are “mistakenly targeted because they aren’t Muslim”? Why can’t we just insist that Sikhs, like Muslims and Hindus, and Catholic, and Aurora, CO moviegoers, Tucson denizens, and Columbine High School students were mistakenly targeted—because they should NEVER be targeted?

This points to probably the most egregious form of misidentification that happened on the waves yesterday: the insistence that religion had something to do with this massacre—that somehow, one’s faith—or lack thereof—has moral implications for whether they live or die, get to be free or jailed indefinitely. And we know that whether one is Muslim or Sikhs will often determine whether they are seen as good or bad people.

Really, people. C’mon. Faith doesn’t kill people (although I’m pretty certain that people kill faith). White men kill people. Supremacists kill people. Young men kill people. And as Michael Moore has famously pointed out, Americans kill people.  So, let’s start looking elsewhere for answers: neither to religion nor easy racial profiling of brown folks.

Let’s start looking to those who lead by example: to the US State, to the Congressmen and women who voted to create a full on War on Terror that would involve hundreds of thousands of civilian casualties overseas, to the Presidents and their henchman who assassinate without due process, and give orders to launch drones all over Pakistan, Iraq, and Afghanistan—easy killing without the mess.  Their examples send the message to young white men that if they don’t like someone, they should kill them. And we wonder why Americans are so violent.