"Thomas Jefferson, who knew that the essential protection of religious freedom involved a national commitment to guard against threats to worshipers, would surely have been aghast at the level or hatred and violence that has been directed at the roughly 500,000 American Sikhs in recent years," argues journalist John Nichols in a recent piece for the Nation. Nichols is the Washington correspondent for the magazine and author of Uprising: How Wisconsin Renewed the Politics of Protest, from Madison to Wall Street (Nation Books, 2012).
Nichols puts the recent events in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, in historical context and makes the case that as Americans mourn the killings, it is crucial to remember and embrace the true history of religious freedom in America. He writes, "Jefferson never wanted there to be any doubt that religious freedom extended to those of all faiths, and that the essence of that freedom was the liberty to worship without threats or fear of violence of the sort that on Sunday left seven dead…" He continues, "There is a gun debate to be had. There is a tolerance debate to be had. There are real questions to be asked and answered about how a nation responds to hatred and the violence it breeds."
On Monday, August 6, Nichols appeared on Democracy Now! along with Colin Goddard, a survivor of the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre, and Rajdeep Singh, Director of Law and Policy at The Sikh Coalition. Nichols discussed the for-profit industry that has developed around the politics of gun control. He observed how the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) has worked intimately with the NRA to make gun regulation laws significantly more lax:
Religious freedom involves a right to feel safe in your place of worship. And frankly, to express your religious traditions in the streets as you move through a community. This is a very old, very deeply rooted American concept, and yet, when you have a situation where someone might imagine they are threatened by someone different, lax gun laws, and a signal coming from government that it is somehow a OK to respond violently to a sense of a threat, I think this is a dangerous pattern and one that is not just in Wisconsin but across the country.
Meanwhile Investigative Fund reporter Matt Kennard — who authored this 2009 Salon piece on the disturbing recruitment of neo-Nazis in the US army — wrote a blog post about the tragic consequences of highly trained white supremacists bringing the war home with them in their communities.
Also check out Colorlines.com's Rinku Sen's thoughtful reaction to the tragedy and the ensuing media coverage. Here's a short excerpt:
Only CNN attempted continuous coverage yesterday, and I'm grateful that they tried. Yet that coverage was so generally devoid of Sikh voices that it just reminded me how ill-equipped the media are. The "expert" they turned to most often was the sincere but inadequate Eric Marrapodi of CNN's Belief Blog. He kept saying that Sikhs were not Muslims, but were often mistaken for Muslims and "unfairly targeted." The first time he said it, I thought, wow, that's unfortunate phrasing and he'll stop using it after he realizes or someone points out the implication that Muslims can be "fairly" targeted. But no one ever got a clue. Islamaphobia was never mentioned, much less condemned for the ignorance and violence that it spreads.
The popular author and blogger Glenn Greenwald wrote a scathing piece for Salon on the connection between the attraction white supremacists have to the army, and US policy in the Middle East:
[T]here are usually a diverse array of complex motives (psychological, emotional, ideological, religious) that drive individuals to engage in violence of this sort, and an equally diverse list of complex causes (legislative, political, cultural) as to why our society fosters and enables it. For that reason, I'm generally averse to seizing on a horrific episode, particularly in the immediate aftermath, and using it to try to isolate a single cause or confirm long-held beliefs. That said, there's no denying the strangeness of our collective reactions — intense outrage, laced with professed bafflement — to incidents like the Sikh shooting, or the mosque burning. It just is true that the U.S. is a country that has spent the last decade using massive amounts of violence in multiple Muslim countries: continuously bombing, invading, attacking, droning, and killing. In that part of the world, the U.S. government regularly kills innocent men, women and children (almost always non-whites), and has bombed mosques, attacked funerals and mourners, and targeted media outlets for violence and killed their journalists.
Political theorist Falguni A. Sheth made a similar observation on her blog, in which she argues that Americas have become accustomed to the scripts that the media run in the aftermath of mass shootings. She argues:
[I]t is necessary to confront the ideological truths that underlie the mass epidemic of violence that America is confronting...In large part, the shooters and arsonists who are behind many, if not most of these events in America, are white men. In large part, these men have either come of age in the shadow of September 11. They have watched the media, heard Department of Homeland Security officials, and followed as mostly white male (and some female) politicians have given the anxious go ahead to wage an enormous war against Muslims abroad (Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan) or at home (in the form of the War on Terror)...They have internalized the message that those you fear can be addressed without words, without dialogue, but with violence, with power, with coercion.
The arguments made by Nichols, Kennard, Sen, Greenwald, and Sheth put the Oak Creek shooting into historical and political context to help make sense of these "senseless" actions.