Naunihal Singh, in The New Yorker, has written a powerful op-ed on the Oak Creek shootings. Singh’s entire article is complete and compelling, looking closely at the media coverage and the failure of both campaigns to fully incorporate the tragedy into necessary healing as a nation, but what follows is the most troubling part of his insight:
The massacre in Oak Creek is treated as a tragedy for Sikhs in America rather than a tragedy for all Americans. Unlike Aurora, which prompted nationwide mourning, Oak Creek has had such a limited impact that a number of people walking by the New York City vigil for the dead on Wednesday were confused, some never having heard of the killings in the first place.
The two incidents were obviously different in important ways: Holmes shot more people, did so at the opening of a blockbuster film, and was captured alive. There were also the Olympics. However, it is hard to escape the conclusion that Oak Creek would have similarly dominated the news cycle if the shooter had been Muslim and the victims had been white churchgoers. Both the quantity and content of the coverage has been clearly shaped by the identities of the shooter and his victims.
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.
In the end, the events of Oak Creek are tragic on at least two levels. There is the tragedy inherent in the brutal murders, the heroic sacrifices, the anguished waiting, and the grief of relatives whose lives will never be the same. But there is also the larger one of our inability to understand this attack as an assault upon the American dream and therefore a threat to us all. The cost of this second tragedy is one that the entire nation will bear.