Yesterday, less than 48 hours after the shootings in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, a mosque in Joplin, Missouri was burned to the ground. It was the second time that someone had tried to burn the mosque down in a month, and the third time that the mosque has had a fire on its property. A suspect hasn’t been found. The FBI suspects arson. The mosque is completely gone. It was burned during the month of Ramadan. Gee. The third fire on its property, and the second in less than a month. The third time. Arson? Really, you think?
I only happened to come across this news as I was perusing some comments regarding the Sikh Temple shooting. There has been virtually no reporting on it. Let me look into my political crystal ball: A mosque gets burned to the ground, after two previous attempts: The perpetrator will be a white, angry young man, possibly part of a crowd of young angry white men. I will predict a “white supremacist organization.”
Am I a genius? Maybe. After all, some of us in the South Asian community understood well before the media confirmed it: the shooting at the Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin was the work of a white supremacist whose name, Wade Michael Page, would only be released hours later And some of us in the progressive pundosphere anticipated well before most details came out about the Aurora, Colorado shootings by James Holmes, that he would be characterized as a quiet, loner type. And at least some of us understood in the hours after the shooting at the United States Army Base in Fort Hood, Texas, that the shooter, because he wasn’t white and because he was remotely “Arab”—and even though he was a soldier and an Army psychiatrist–that his actions would be characterized as those of a “terrorist.”
Why did we know? It’s not that we were psychic or we had a direct line to God. Rather, we have become accustomed to the scripts that American law enforcement, the FBI, and the media run in the aftermath of (too) many mass shootings:
A group of Sikhs shot by a white man? A white supremacist. A group of (mostly) white Americans shot by a white man in the Midwest? In a theater? A loner. In a high school by two white boys/men? Troubled loners. By a man of East Asian origin on a college campus? A deranged loner. An Army base shot up by a Palestinian-American (US Army psychiatrist)? A terrorist (by definition deranged and ideologically zealous). A black man is repeatedly run over by two white boys in a truck? So strange; racism is gone. We have a black president. A black boy gets shot by a white man? Random and probably deserved. Black men on death row for crimes they didn’t commit? Justice prevails. So say the governors who allow them to be executed, and so follow our media.
These scripts are pulled out so neatly, one marvels at the level of organization that allow them to be read out so easily. And yet, like most scripts, they are edited to provide a clear, easy-to-follow narrative that appeals to the audience’s most intimately held beliefs. Those beliefs are drawn out, and impressed again to memorize what our irrational sides fear: those white guys are loners; those young white/Asian men are troubled and deranged loners. Those brown men are terrorists. Those black men are hoodlums and gangmembers.
The Oak Creek Police held a press conference after the shooting at the Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, where they declared that the shooting was an act of domestic terrorism. How did they define an act of domestic terrorism, a reporter asked. The Chief of Police declared that it was an act of terrorism done within the confines of the country, by a person who was not from another country. In fact, domestic terrorism does not exclude acts committed by foreign nationals according to Sec. 802 of the USA PATRIOT Act, one of the first and overarching bills that was passed to combat terrorism after September 11, 2001.
Though his definition was incorrect, his answer was illuminating—because it reflected the fiction that Americans have been trained, through these repeating scripts, to believe: most evil against Americans is committed by foreign (and usually Muslim) men, and most Americans are white.
But part of the newsworthiness of the shooting was that another massacre (and so soon after Aurora) was occurring, but this time against “foreigners.” And so the media became obsessively focused on the non-Muslim brownness of the victims. Perhaps a bit far-fetched. But how else can we explain the obsessive focus on the “Sikh-ness” of the victims? Or the questions about whether Sikhs as a group have enemies (Didn’t the victims of Aurora, Colorado have enemies?) Or whether “anti-Semitic” acts have been committed against Sikhs in the past? Yes. This was asked by a Fox News broadcaster.
When the Aurora, Colorado movie theater shooting happened the week before, there was no discussion of the “whiteness” or the “Americanness” the victims, even though every one who died was white and American. In fact, the focus was on how “normal,” how kind, how loving, how smart they were in their roles as children, soldiers, parents, and students. Aren’t the temple-goers also “normal,” kind, and loving? They are a religious people, like so many Americans. Many of them are Americans, like the victims in Aurora, Colorado.
James Holmes, the shooter in Aurora, was also white and American. And so media turned to its usual, Ted Kaczynski script: genius, troubled, loner. In the case of Oak, Creek, the shooter was white, but since the victims were brown, the shooter had to have been a white supremacist. According to Chauncey DeVega, even white supremacists were hoping he wasn’t one of them.
And now that a mosque has been burned to the ground, we barely hear anything about it. That’s part of the script, too: A mosque? Muslims? Not that interesting. After all, how can Muslims be peace-loving? Don’t they want to kill Americans? They attacked America.
Like most scripts, these are fictional. But unlike most movies and novels, the FBI and the media outlets that draw on these scripts claim to be reporting the truth. And to move from novelistic narratives to more accurate, documentarian narratives, it is necessary to confront the ideological truths that underlie the mass epidemic of violence that America is confronting. Yes, better gun control can help to manage the violence. Page’s gun was the same type used in Aurora, and in the shooting of Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords last year. It was a 9 mm semiautomatic, and it was legal. And it would have been legal even under President Clinton’s 1994 Assault Weapon ban. But the Joplin mosque was burned down. I doubt that banning matches will solve the problem at hand.
Other truths must also be confronted. In large part, the shooters and arsonists who are behind many, if not most of these events in America, are white men. In large part, these men have either come of age in the shadow of September 11. They have watched the media, heard Department of Homeland Security officials, and followed as mostly white male (and some female) politicians have given the anxious go ahead to wage an enormous war against Muslims abroad (Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan) or at home (in the form of the War on Terror). Several of them have served in a military that follows the orders of two U.S. Presidential administrations by training their men to shoot, invade, drop rockets from helicopters, and drones controlled remotely from Syracuse, NY and other air force bases in the United States.
These white men have learned their lessons well, whether in the military or from hours of media news: the frustrations of a scared (white) America can be dealt with waging a war using guns, bombs, chemicals, and drones. They have learned that it is ok to kill those who you believe to be behind threats to your comfort. They have internalized the message that those you fear can be addressed without words, without dialogue, but with violence, with power, with coercion. They have learned that some religions are automatically evil and that those who adhere to those religions must be destroyed. And these white men reflect an ideology of violence that has permeated America in the name of the War on Terror. Sadly, that ideology, perpetuated by our white men and women in power, carried out by American soldiers, and endorsed by a lapdog media, isn’t fading away. It’s becoming bigger, stronger, and more murderous.
These men are not mad or crazy. They are the well-trained students of American foreign and domestic policies. They have learned well the United States’ message: that violence and mayhem are the answer. We need to change the scripts, and confront the fallout of a decade of the War on Terror—and other excuses for state-led violence quickly, before the chickens come home to roost.