Racist murder at a Wisconsin temple

Nicole Colson reports on the mass killing at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin--and explains that the broader climate of racism after 9/11 likely sparked this act of terrorism.

A vigil for the victims of the Sikh temple massacre in WisconsinA vigil for the victims of the Sikh temple massacre in Wisconsin

"THE BIGGEST question we have is, is this a hate crime? What did we do wrong?"

That was the anguished question of a member of the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin in Oak Creek, Wis., right after a mass shooting on August 5. Seven people, including the shooter, were killed, and several more people were wounded.

In the hours that followed , as information trickled out in the media about the killer, Wade Michael Page, the answer to that question became clear: Page was motivated by racist hate.

Page apparently arrived at the temple carrying a semiautomatic handgun just past 10 a.m.--a time when many congregants, including children and women preparing a meal, were getting ready for services. He reportedly shot a priest standing outside and then entered the temple and began stalking his victims.

When the shooting began, many congregants reportedly locked themselves in various areas of the temple, including bathrooms and a kitchen pantry, and frantically called 911. Some 400 families worship at the temple, and many say the massacre could have been much worse.

Though we don't know his exact motivations for choosing the Sikh temple, Page has been identified by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which tracks hate groups in the U.S., as a white supremacist who belonged to a neo-Nazi band called "End Apathy." A picture from the SPLC shows Page and another band member playing with a Nazi flag in the background. In the picture, Page's racist tattoos--including a Celtic cross with the number "14" in it (a neo-Nazi symbol)--are clearly visible. He also reportedly had at least one "9/11 memorial" tattoo.

Describing Page as a "frustrated neo-Nazi," the SPLC's Mark Potok reported:

In 2010, Page, then the leader of the band End Apathy, gave an interview to the white supremacist website Label 56. He said that when he started the band in 2005, its name reflected his wish to "figure out how to end people's apathetic ways" and start "moving forward."

Potok added in an interview with the New York Times that Page was "in the thick of the white supremacist music scene and, in fact, played with some of the best-known racist bands in the country." Describing the genre of hate music, Potok stated, "The music that comes from these bands is incredibly violent, and it talks about murdering Jews, Black people, gay people and a whole host of other enemies. It is music that could not be sold over the counter around the country."

The SPLC's Heidi Beirich told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that the group had tracked Page since 2000, when he attempted to buy items from the neo-Nazi group the National Alliance. According to Beirich, Page attended "hate events" around the country.

Page was also a veteran of the U.S. Army, having served from 1992 to 1998, reportedly assigned to psychological operations and eventually receiving a discharge after being demoted.

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LOCAL POLICE described Page's actions almost immediately as "domestic terrorism." They're right.

Since September 11, the Sikh community has become the target of racist attacks--in many cases from ignorant bigots who have mistaken Sikhs (particularly Sikh men, who wear turbans as a part of their religious practice) for Muslims.

In an interview with Al Jazeera, Rajdeep Singh, policy adviser for the Sikh Coalition, said that Sikhs in the U.S. have been subjected to "hate crimes and other forms of discrimination" since the 9/11 attacks. "It's not just Sikhs, it's also Arab Americans, Muslim Americans and South Asian Americans," Singh said. "Unfortunately, the prevailing stereotype these days is that if somebody wears a turban they're somehow associated with extremism. That's obviously not the case."

According to the New York Times:

Threats against the [Sikh] community have become acute enough that in April, Representative Joseph Crowley of New York, co-chairman of the Congressional Caucus on Indian and Indian Americans, sent a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder urging the FBI to collect data on hate-crimes committed against Sikh-Americans. In the last year alone, he said in the letter, two Sikh men in Sacramento were slain, a Sikh temple in Michigan was vandalized, and a Sikh man was beaten in New York.

A 2010 survey by the Sikh Coalition found that among 1,300 Sikhs surveyed in the Bay Area, some 28 percent of adults had been called an epithet such as "Bin Laden," "terrorist" or "towel-head," while 10 percent reported being victims of hate crimes, including physical abuse or property vandalism. Two-thirds of those reported hate crimes were physical attacks.

According to the Coalition, since 9/11, there have been more than 700 documented instances of hate crimes against Sikhs. One of the first was the murder of Balbir Singh Sodhi by a man named Frank Roque on September 15, 2001--believed to be the first post-9/11 hate crime murder in the U.S. Roque had been raving about immigrants and the 9/11 attacks before he murdered Sodhi, who was helping plant flowers around his gas station. Roque reportedly shouted, "I am a patriot," as he was arrested.

In March of last year, two Sikh men, Surinder Singh and Gurmej Atwal were shot and killed by a person inside a pickup truck as they took a walk through their Sacramento, Calif., neighborhood, in what many believe was a similar hate crime.

That attack came less than a month after a right-wing Tea Party group, led by the racist Stop Islamization of America, staged a sickening anti-Muslim rally outside a Yorba Linda, Calif., mosque, where rabid participants yelled at worshippers: "Go home," "Terrorists," and "We don't want you here."

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ALTHOUGH IT isn't known why Page targeted Sikhs--whether he believed the temple to be associated with Muslims, for example, or he felt some perceived slight from the Sikh community, or he was simply an equal opportunity racist, looking for a convenient target--it's important to consider the larger implications surrounding this crime.

Even as they sought to "clarify" the difference between Muslims and Sikhs in the aftermath of the Wisconsin shooting, much of the mainstream media's coverage of the shootings has laid bare the racism at the heart of such hate crimes.

In live coverage following the massacre, CNN commenter Eric Marrapodi stated that Sikhs were being "unfairly targeted"--as if it would be "fair" to target Muslims. Likewise, a CBS reporter sought to explain the difference between Sikhs and Muslims by stating, "The Sikh religion is based around truth and nonviolence, and the Muslim religion is just a completely different religion."

To other commentators and political leaders, the killings were merely a "senseless act of violence," as Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney put it.

But whatever else it is, the massacre in Oak Creek is not "senseless."

It is a predictable consequence of a society where racism and bigotry has been allowed to fester, magnified by the officially sanctioned demonization of Arabs, Muslims and others of Middle Eastern, Persian and South Asian descent. By virtue of their skin color, religion and clothing, people from these groups are perceived as a supposed "threat" to security, and they are scapegoated as part of the so-called "war on terror" carried out by both parties.

And Oak Creek is far from unique. The day after Page carried out his killings at the Sikh Temple, a mosque in Joplin, Mo., was burned to the ground--a suspected arson. It was the second fire at the mosque in just over a month and the third since 2008.

When right-wing Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann can publicly claim that Huma Abedin, an aide to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Rep. Keith Ellison, the only Muslim member of Congress, have ties to the Muslim Brotherhood--and hint that they are part of a Muslim plot to infiltrate the U.S. government--is it really so surprising that a self-styled "patriot" would decide to commit an act of terror against a persecuted minority?

And when Rep. Peter King--who once claimed that 80 percent of the mosques in the U.S. were run by extremists--held witch-hunt congressional hearings last year into the "Extent of Radicalization in the American Muslim Community and that Community's Response," is it any wonder that a neo-Nazi would choose to a place of worship to carry out a massacre?

The bigotry of King and Bachmann is disgusting. But no one should be under any illusion that Islamophobia is a Republican trait alone. The Obama administration, like the Bush administration before it, has carried out dozens of high-profile arrests and prosecutions of so-called "terrorists," almost entirely of Arab and Muslims, often on the most tenuous of grounds. This has only contributed to the anti-Muslim scapegoating.

Add to that the administration's continuing war in Afghanistan and escalating drone war in Pakistan and elsewhere, and it's no surprise that the image of Arabs, Muslims and South Asians most familiar to Americans is of the faceless, nameless "terrorist" depicted on the television news.

As Deepa Kumar, author of Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire has written, the virulent racism of the right wing has gone largely unchallenged, opening the door to further extremism:

Polls in mid-2010 showed that close to 20 percent of Americans believed that Obama was a "secret Muslim," and that this made him an unfit president. Rather than challenge the racist assumption of his accusers, Obama chose instead to emphasize his Christian credentials. This posture only gave credence to the notion that there is something wrong with being Muslim. In short, with a few exceptions...the liberal imperialists in the Democratic Party pandered to the far right on this question. It is therefore not surprising that the right was able to set the terms of the discussion.

This is the climate in which Wade Michael Page felt confident to take out his hatred on an entire community of people.

Amardeep Kaleka told the New York Times that his father Satwant Singh Kaleka, one of those killed on August 5, had immigrated to the U.S. 30 years ago, at a time when Sikhs were facing discrimination in India. Two years after coming to America, he was attacked and beaten at a gas station.

"They will accept us," his father told Amardeep at the time. "You'll see, they will accept us."

Instead, Satwant is dead at the hands of a terrorist--whose racist hate has been fueled by those in power in the U.S.