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The Sikh Temple Shooting & How We Regard Violence by Lone Gunmen

Vigil for Sikh temple shooting victims in Wisconsin/Flickr photo by ljlandre

A white supremacist named Wade Michael Page opened fire at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, on Sunday and killed six worshipers. Three other worshipers and a police officer were wounded. Page was shot dead by police.

As the incident unfolded yesterday, CNN provided coverage of it as law enforcement responded and as victims of the shooting from the Sikh community began to share their views on what happened. The tension over whether this was “domestic terrorism” or a hate crime or neither appeared on air as host Don Lemon tried to hush Rajwant Singh, chairman of the Sikh Council on Religion and Education, who attempted to place what had happened in the context of prior vigilante-type attacks against Sikhs after the September 11th attacks.

Hearing Lemon urge Singh to discuss only the few details he knew about members of the congregation led me to wonder how initial reporting on so-called lone wolf shootings might have evolved in the past years. It is widely known the FBI and other government agencies focus minimal attention on right wing terror groups in America. Resources for addressing domestic terrorism are, for the most part, intended to be used to monitor Muslim or anarchist communities.

On July 28, 2006, Naveed Afzal Haq, a Muslim American, shot and killed a woman and wounded five at the Seattle Jewish Federation. Haq shouted, “I’m a Muslim American; I’m angry at Israel,” before he fired shots at anyone.

CNN covered the shooting in the evening on Friday, but when it was reporting, the shooting was still unfolding. By Saturday evening, the following ran a quote from Robin Boehler of the Federation where she said, “Every Jewish organization is a target.” The act was called a “hate crime.” There was no suggestion that what Haq had done was “terrorism.”

There was a shooting on July 27, 2008, at a Unitarian Universalist church in Knoxville, Tennessee. The shooter, James Adkisson, hated homosexuals, blacks, liberals and Democrats and opened fire in the church because it was known for liberal teachings. None of that came out in the first twenty-four hours. CNN’s reporting revealed very little about the shooter or why he would have shot up a church.

Scott Roeder murdered an abortion doctor, Dr. George Tiller, in a church in Wichita, Kansas, on May 31, 2009. Roeder had a history of vandalism against abortion clinics and a CNN senior political analyst put it called it a “hate crime.” There was no discussion of whether it might be a lone wolf terrorism act, despite the history of anti-abortion violence committed against clinics in America.

A day later, Carlos Bledsoe or Abdula Hakim Muhammad killed a soldier at an Army Navy Recruiting Center in Little Rock, Arkansas, in a drive-by shooting. Authorities quickly noted Bledsoe’s conversion to Islam and that the attack stemmed from “his disagreement with military actions.” CNN reported that he had been charged with one count of capital murder and fifteen counts of “engaging in terrorism.” Beyond that, there was not too much initial speculation about what he had done.

A shooting occurred at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC, on June 10, 2009. The shooter killed security guard Stephen Tyrone Johns. CNN was able to figure out in a matter of hours that the shooter was James Von Brunn, an 88 year-old white supremacist with a history of hatred against Jews. Brunn had gone to prison before for violently trying to place the Federal Reserve Board of Governors under citizens’ arrest in 1981. CNN anchor Rick Sanchez and a DC “detective” named Mike Brooks agreed the shooting fit the FBI’s definition of “domestic terrorism.”

Major Nidal Malik Hasan killed thirteen and wounded twenty-nine others on the Fort Hood military base just outside Killeen, Texas on November 5, 2009. Upon discovery that he had Muslim views, CNN did not jump to conclusions about how this could be terrorism during initial coverage. Anchors reported that terrorism had not been ruled out but there was no evidence that it was a terrorist act at the time. And they reported that he was upset that he was about to be deployed to Iraq and was “someone with a psychiatry degree, medical degrees, had worked at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, which would have brought him into contact with the wounded.”

Fast forward to to the shooting in Aurora, Colorado, on July 20, before CNN even knew the identity of the shooter, a retired New York Police Department detective named Dan Austin said, “You know, I have heard some reports that it’s not domestic terrorism. It’s not this type of terrorism. In light of everything, it’s definitely an act of terrorism. It’s home-grown terrorism, because the ramifications down the road because of this are going to be exponential.” While CNN did not take an official position that the act by alleged shooter James Holmes had been terrorism, a guest did use the term when guests during coverage of prior shootings had never used the term.

The public is now seeing the FBI and Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) units show up at these incidents, which indicates law enforcement is under more pressure than ever before to investigate acts like this as domestic terrorism. That does not mean resources are shifting to focus on the people in society who might commit homegrown acts of terror. Geography, foreign policy and profit motives of US corporations still are the chief determination of what individuals or groups should and should not be addressed as posing threats of terrorism.


In conclusion, past CNN coverage shows the issue is not necessarily whether white males aren’t terrorists while brown-skinned Muslims are when violence occurs. Each case showed a complete deference toward law enforcement. When law enforcement took the lead and categorized something as a hate crime or an act of domestic terrorism, that was when CNN would begin to discuss how it was a hate crime or how it was a terrorist act.

Most of these acts can be regarded as lone wolf terrorist acts. They may not have all been investigated by law enforcement as terrorist acts, but they involved lone gunmen, who specifically targeted a location for clear social or political reasons.

It is clear that time can be spent when these shootings occur debating whether they are “hate crimes,” “terrorist acts,” or both. Certainly, the attack on Sikh worshipers will rightfully rekindle such a debate over how society categorizes violence.

To the extent that a media organization like CNN spends time addressing how the public should view the act, time should also be spent discussing the context in which the event occurred. That means examining the continuum of barbarism or vigilantism in society and what cultural, social or political conditions might be driving the individuals who commit such acts.

For example, this is what Singh had to say to CNN before Lemon told him to focus on only what was known about the incident yesterday afternoon:

SINGH: You know, to be very honest, this is kind of feeling in the Sikh community throughout U.S. since 9/11, that this kind of tragedy might occur anytime, anywhere, any state, and it’s just very unfortunate that this had to be today in Wisconsin.

Because since 9/11, there’s so much misunderstanding and people confuse us with either belonging to Bin Laden or we are a part of Taliban or any tragedy occurs, then Iraq or Afghanistan has repercussions for the Sikh community. We are always fearful of this kind of reaction and any lunatic will confuse us and make us a target. So I’m sure this organization has the same feelings as any other organization.

In fairness to Lemon, Singh was on CNN again and had ample opportunity to share his views a few hours later before the shooter’s identity and key biographical details about his membership in a white power music band named “End Apathy” was known. What he said is critical to any understanding of the recent shooting:

SINGH: I think it’s you know, I agree with it. It’s really jumping to conclusion and secondly, the word “terrorism” is very misleading in this tragedy because, you know, terrorism is either by — committed by somebody who has had a resentment or he’s against somebody or there’s some anger or some issues here.

What we need to understand is the basic problem that has faced our community for the last 11 years and also facing this country is that there is so much ignorance. People do not have much perspective outside of America. Unfortunately, media has a role to play in that and many of the political commentary, which is going around, which we recently saw with Secretary Clinton’s secretary being claimed as some plant by — so anyway, the point is that there is so much ignorance and there’s a hysteria.

There’s a hype created against the Muslims and made them somehow the victims and that they are somehow working against — Muslims are working against America. So we are the side victim of this back and forth dialogue which is taking place in the country. There is — because of our appearance, now, if you want to go out and see a Muslim, you will not find, how would you identify a Muslim in the crowd? You will identify a Sikh and we look like a Muslim. And that’s the problem where this whole thing boils down to. [emphasis added]

Essentially, Singh was suggesting Page might have been ignorant so let’s wait and see if it really is a “terrorist” act because he may have wanted to get Muslims and mistook the Sikh temple for something it is not (like a mosque he would not want built at Ground Zero). Nonetheless, there is no doubt that unmistakable terror was inflicted upon a community and, over a decade since 9/11, Sikhs have experienced terror that includes bullying and discrimination because of how they look.

And, as “Democracy Now!” correspondent Jaisal Noor said today in regards to the shooter’s identity as a veteran:

We have more than two million veterans, who have served in the last ten years in Afghanistan and Iraq, and they are coming home and they are not getting the support they need from our society. And they have been exposed to a tremendous amount of violence and we can’t disconnect our foreign policy abroad, the tremendous violence we have wreaked upon the world, and think that’s not going to come back. And when soldiers come back, they do bring that experience back with them.

Noor added it was wrong to call violence like this “senseless,” like both President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney did, because it does a “disservice to the victims.” The violence was “clearly planned.” Page knew when the Sikhs would be worshipping. He planned and targeted these people (whether he mistook them for Muslims or not). Page was driven by white nationalist ideology and willing to act out to defend society against what he likely considered a poison: people who weren’t white.

Whether what he did was terrorism or not, Page is part of a horrid tradition of white supremacy and racial violence in America that still plagues or pollutes culture and politics. If we want to prevent future violence, there has to be a meaningful reflection and conversation about attitudes and beliefs that reinforce that which breeds hatred and terror in communities.

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."