Mosques, Temples, and Theaters: We Need to Change the Script

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.

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Voting Model #3: The “Lesser of Two Evils”

This one gets trotted out around March of every election year. And around March of election year, I stop reading, or even casually glancing, at the Nation and every other pseudo-liberal magazine whose writers stuff their critical perspectives deep into the back of their closets—you know—the perspectives that they used to criticize the incumbent for the prior three years—in order to jump on the “lesser of two evils” bandwagon. And the chorus goes something like this: “Who would you rather have? The Democratic candidate who’s pro-choice (see VM #2) or the Republican candidate who’s anti-abortion?” This refrain is usually followed up by, “He (the Democrat) is the lesser of two evils,” after all.

Here’s the translation on the chorus: “Who would you rather have? The good looking, charming, suave, well-dressed, ivy-leaguer with New England reserve and Northern accent? Or the ignorant fratboy with the menacing smile, crude manners, and vacuous personality who so reminds me of the bad guy in any James Bond movie that I’d rather jump off a bridge to my death than be forced to shake hands with him (again, see VM #2)?” And just in case y’all think I’m picking on Obama, go back and reread the Nation in 1992 (Bill Clinton v. George Bush I), 1996 (Bill Clinton v. Bob Dole), 2000 (Al Gore v. George Bush II), and 2004 (John Kerry v. George Bush II).

And here’s the translation on the “lesser of two evils” refrain: Sure, there isn’t much distinguishing them: they’re both neo-liberals on economic policy[1]; they both want to cut Social Security and Medicare; they’re both pro-war, pro-imperialist expansion, pro-warrantless surveillance, pro-rendition, pro-indefinite detention.

But still, we have to vote for the Democrat, because there are some IMPORTANT differences, after all: The Dem is pro-choice (see VM #2), he’s pro-environment (see VM #2)[1]; and the Democrat wants healthcare reform.

At bottom, the refrain really means: “Hey, Bill/Al/John/ is one of us (see VM #1). He talks like us; he went to school where we went/wanted to go (even though the Georges did also); he seems like someone I’d be friends with, and after all, I’d vote for my friend if he was running, so….” Huh? This is what counts as “the lesser of two evils”?

Evil is evil. Period. It can’t be quantified, unless you’re a Benthamite utilitarian and you’re ok with selling out black and brown folks overseas for some more time to rest nice and comfy in your own house. Black and brown folks—especially poor black and brown folks– at home have not been sold out; they’ve just never been allowed to buy in. The reproductive rights of black women have been taken away time and time again—through forced sterilization, through the absence of access to reproductive service and medication, and through the absence of access to affordable healthcare—and no, Mitt Romney’s Massachusetts’ mandatory purchase-healthcare (which was the model for national healthcare) does NOT solve that problem. What about the civil rights of black men, you ask? Wait, I’m don’t understand. What are those? Are those the ones that the Democrats signed away in the 1996 “3-strikes You’re out” bill, which managed to find a way to put away an even larger swath of black men and other men of color. As of 2002, over 2 million were imprisoned–remember, this is before the War on Terror was well underway. What about the civil liberties of brown and Muslim men? Umm, have you not been paying attention?

So to folks who buy into this model: please don’t pretend that you are voting for someone who will enable better possibilities for someone other than you–certainly not for migrants and U.S. indigent, poor, or working-class folks of color. You may be voting for someone who will maintain the status quo for yourself and others in your socio-economic class. That’s fine. But imperious self-righteousness is hardly a good argument. And don’t worry, you’re being sold out, too.

A vote for a “lesser” evil is still a vote for evil. And the 12th hour urge/guilt-trip/admonishment to vote for the Democrat is a bit like hurling a bucket of water at a house that’s going down in flames because you surrounded the fireplace with parched Christmas trees and then started a blazing fire. Yes, it’s an emergency, and supposedly some water may be better than none, and yes, I understand that we’re supposed to band together to put out the fire. But we let the damn fire happen in the first place. That election fire can’t be put out by a few buckets of water (aka, a last-minute capitulation to the “lesser of two evils” guilt-trip).

Look, the Democrats have been kicking liberal/progressive types in the teeth for at least the last twenty years. “Vote for us,” they say, “else this country will be sold out.” Vote for us, or else you’ll have a deregulated banking industry. Vote for us or else you’ll have spies everywhere, warrantless surveillance, bankers gone wild, payoffs to the rich, and your reproductive rights will be peeled back. Vote for us, or else you’ll lose your civil liberties. So, we’re supposed to vote for Democrats in order to be protected from the havoc that the Republicans could cause. Hm. But as I recall, Bill Clinton signed a series of bills into law— Immigration Reform, Anti-Terrorism, Welfare Reform, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” Glass-Steagall Act–among others, that heralded much of the bleak world in which we now live. Al Gore, John Kerry, and even Hilary Clinton were on the same bandwagon (remember the “are you tough enough to push the button ads?)

Hand in hand with this argument, is the loyalty supposedly articulated by George Clooney, which has been righteously circulating around Facebook: “I’m a firm believer in sticking by and sticking up for the people whom you’ve elected.” (Is it too coy to point out that this quote comes from a man who just dumped his umpteenth lover?) Unconditional loyalty is for sports teams, your family/friends, and your pets.

Ah…if only the Democrats could heed the loyalty argument for their constituencies. Stick by us and we’ll stick by you. Anything else is nothing short of an abusive relationship: you kick your voters in the teeth and then insist you love us and that we can’t throw you out.

So, what to do? I’ll respond more in a future post, but in the meantime, let me just say this: the national elections don’t matter at this point. We need to work on local races, local elections, alternative institutions. And why do we need to accept the “two-party option” that grounds the “lesser of two evils” vote? In the short term, we have no options. But we need to retain a historical memory, and build with a view to the long-term future. Abusive relationships need to be abandoned.


[1] see NAFTA (1993), Glass-Steagall Act (1999), Riegle-Neal Interstate Banking Act (1994), Colombia, South Korea, Panama Free Trade Agreements (introduced by George II during his time in office, but remained unpassed. These free-trade agreements were passed recently in October 2011), the Commodity Futures Modernization Act (2000), among others.