Media Accountability and the ‘Senseless’ Temple Shooting


Witnesses described the shooter at the Oak Creek Sikh Temple as a six-foot tall bald white man wearing black pants and a white T-shirt who bore a tattoo referencing 9/11.   A congregation member reported that “mainly turbaned individuals,” were the victims.   With just these facts, the question still remains, why?  Why did the gunman target the Sikh community?

LA Times reports that “Tattoos on the body of the slain Sikh temple gunman and certain biographical details led the FBI to treat the attack as an act of domestic terrorism.”   Is it accurate to describe a massacre committed by a man with a tattoo on a religious minority community as a ‘politically motivated act of violence’?  Do we even have enough evidence to label this “hate”?

CNN Belief Blog co-editor Eric Marrapodi has assumed that because the shooter was not turbaned, he was certainly not Sikh.  According to Marrapodi, “one of the key tenets of male Sikhs is to let their hair grow long and wrap it in a turban and to let their beard grow long.  That’s not just a fashion statement guys, that’s a tenet of their belief.”   We know the gunman was not Sikh, and allegedly apart of white power groups, but Marrapodi’s reasoning completely ignores the fact that some Sikhs choose to cut their hair.  Even though he is an authority on religion, his observation only contributes to the growing surface-level coverage of South Asian culture in mainstream American media.

Nevertheless, Amardeep Singh, an American academic, who is also Sikh and turbaned, blogged yesterday about how “marks of religious difference worn on the body,” tend to face challenges for acceptance.  Singh writes, “I increasingly feel that visible marks of religious difference are lightning rods for hostility in ways that don't depend on accurate recognition.”  From tangible evidence in the murder of Balbir Singh Sodhi in 2001 to Amardeep Singh’s sentiment, it seems that Americans are not only xenophobic, but they are hostile to the point of violence.

Granted, 9/11 only exacerbated xenophobia in the United States, and Americans demonstrated their intolerance for difference in everything from violent acts to racial profiling.  But can we jump to conclusions about the motives of a man based on a 9/11 tattoo?  Gun control was the centerpiece of The Dark Knight Rises tragedy, but here the media is preoccupied with “terrorism” and flashbacks to 9/11. 

Expectedly, the aftermath of yesterday’s temple shooting has also spurred the media to produce some snapshots of Sikhism for the largely unaware American public.  In predictable blog form, the Huffington Post’s Religion section fashioned a “Sikhism: 5 Things to Know About the Sikh Religion.”  Simran Jeet Singh speaks on behalf of his community in stating, “Sikhs are not a God-fearing people; we are God-loving.”  While these gestures attempt to edify and humanize a religion, they ignore the larger problem of why the Sikhs were targets.  Even if Americans now know some fast facts about Sikhism, what will prevent further violence towards other minority communities? 

Perhaps the grave loss America has suffered in this weekend will force more to see the serious need to grow a stronger tolerance for those who are different. 

This post originally appeared on Asia Blog.