More than a week after the tragic shooting and deaths of American Sikhs in Oak Creek, mainstream media coverage has waned. The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, my hometown paper, has done a chunk of the major lifting in coverage, attempting to provide profiles of lives of the victims. However, where mainstream media fails, the internet rises to fill the void. There’s a Facebook page dedicated to the memory of the victims. A powerful marker that our national conversation around this tragedy has failed to make the human connection, that the deaths of American Sikhs are deserving of our deepest empathy, worthy of national mourning.
Sadly, the media has ignored the universal elements of this story, distracted perhaps by the unfamiliar names and thick accents of the victims’ families. They present a narrative more reassuring to their viewers, one which rarely uses the word terrorism and which makes it clear that you have little to worry about if you’re not Sikh or Muslim. As a Sikh teaching at a Catholic university in the Midwest, I was both confused and offended by this framing. One need not be Pastor Niemöller to understand our shared loss, or to remember that a similar set of beliefs motivated Timothy McVeigh to kill a hundred and sixty-eight (mainly white) Americans in Oklahoma City
The sad truth is that mainstream media has had to spend much of its time to educate itself (and viewers/readers) about the culture of Americans of Southeast Asian descent, about religions other than christianity, let along develop a language that doesn’t pit Muslim against Sikh, equate terrorism with Islam. It has failed it would seem, given some wincing commentary on cable networks -’Sikhs are mistaken for Muslim’ – allowing for warped conclusions, or acceptance that this act of violence is acceptable to Muslim American communities. Terror by any other name is terror. The Sikh temple shooting is an act of terror. The Aurora shooting is an act of terror. The burning down of a mosque is terror.
This tragedy is a teachable moment. Let us endeavor to be precise in our language.