Oak Creek Sikh temple shooting, five years on: We still refuse to admit ignorance can be deadly

By Tim Brauhn, Communications Manager.

This opinion originally appeared in the Wisconsin State Journal

This Saturday, August 5th, marks five years since a white supremacist walked into a Sikh gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin and murdered six innocent people who were preparing food. The shooter’s history made clear that while he probably hated the victims for simply having brown skin, he was also motivated to kill what he thought were Muslims.

The fear and anger that he felt stemmed from ignorance of the communities he targeted. It’s a natural human reaction: unfamiliar things tend to provoke basic caution, and that caution can eventually morph into outright hatred. This is excellent programming for our ancestors avoiding sharp-toothed predators on the savannah one million years ago; less so for a fast-paced, globalized world where we encounter unfamiliarity on a daily basis.

Such deadly ignorance is far from unique, unfortunately. Balbir Singh Sodhi, another Sikh American, was shot to death days after the 9/11 attacks by a man who mistook him for the monsters who knocked down the World Trade Center. Khalid Jabara was murdered last August by his next-door neighbor, a man who missed no chance to refer to the Jabaras as “filthy Mooslems”. But Khalid Jabara was a Lebanese Christian. And on the eve of Passover in 2014, a well-known white supremacist and anti-Semite traveled to two Jewish community centers in Kansas on a mission to murder Jews. He killed three people — a Catholic and two Methodists, one of whom was only 14 years old.

We appear to be in an era where ignorance of the world outside our immediate experience can be claimed as a badge of courage and wielded like a cudgel to craft bad policy. It affects our society deeply. In the past year, ignorance of the “other” has led to Jewish cemetery desecrations, mosque vandalism, assaults on Sikhs, and a host of other dangerously xenophobic reactions.

But xenophobia isn’t exactly the right word here, is it? The prefix “xeno” comes from the Greek denoting something “foreign”. Khalid Jabara wasn’t foreign; his parents fled a civil war to move to Tulsa, Oklahoma in the early 1980s and open a catering business. Balbir Singh Sodhi drove taxis for years before saving enough pennies to buy a gas station; he was shot while planting flowers to beautify the property. The Sikhs in Oak Creek were preparing the equivalent of a soup kitchen: langar, a communal vegetarian meal that is served to anyone regardless of their religion. All those people were doing normal things integral to the American Dream.

The irrational phobias that we carry of non-white or non-Christian people are predicated on ignorance of our history. The United States has had diversity baked into its DNA from the get-go. We haven’t always been good at embracing pluralism — we often fall very short — but the vision of a melting pot, in which diverse peoples and cultures each make unique contributions to the whole, has guided middle school social studies classes for a long time. It’s why dozens of civil society organizations have spent the past year and a half extending the Know Your Neighbor program to every state in the country to build or strengthen basic relationships.

When we give up on learning about those outside our bubble — from academically-sound sources, of course — we do ourselves a great personal and professional disservice. When we neglect to reach across lines of difference, we weaken the already taut social fabric of our country. When we let ignorance dictate our interactions, we doom ourselves to repeat the same mistakes.

Five years since Oak Creek. Sixteen since the global war on terror. Seventy-five since Japanese internment. One hundred and thirty-five since the Chinese Exclusion Act. One hundred and eighty-seven since the Trail of Tears. Four hundred since Europe tore itself to shreds over which kind of Christian had a monopoly on divine truth.

And only half a year since we banned refugees from our shores, as if to say, “Your situation is impossible for me to understand. Please stay in a war zone.” Fear kills. Ignorance feeds it.

So this Sunday, August 6th, make an effort to visit a Sikh gurdwara in your community. Say hello. Ask questions. Experience the unfamiliar and find out that it’s not so different after all. And be sure to bring an empty stomach because they’re going to pack you full of food — and if your heart is open, they’ll fill that too.