Among the more off-putting commentary in the immediate aftermath of the attack on a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisc., were the vacuous musings of a number of TV journalists, speculating why the shooter targeted this community. Why did he “have beef with the Sikhs?” one asked. Then came the bemused refrain — Sikhism is different from Islam — as if somehow everything would make more sense had there been six Muslims shot dead on a balmy summer day in Wisconsin.
On a lot of levels, though, it doesn’t matter whether the dead were Sikh or Muslim, not least because Wade Michael Page, the terrorist who killed them, probably wouldn’t have cared. Yes, Sikhs, many of whom grow long beards and wear turbans, have faced shameful discrimination in the decade since 9/11 — the unwitting scapegoats of anti-Muslim fervor nationwide. But to Page, an Army vet immersed in a world of far-right hate, the people he shot were brown-skinned and irredeemably “the Other.” That was enough to pull the trigger.
It’s that ideology that needs to be taken to task, that needs to be front and center of the national conversation. But will it be?
One can imagine how different the reaction would have been had Page been a Muslim-American, and his victims Christian churchgoers. Immediately, we would see grim-faced talking heads pronouncing upon the pathologies of Islam — a whole culture — and the reach of global terror networks. Politicians would have started grandstanding, calling on moderate Muslims to repudiate the radicals in their midst. They would use the incident to justify the extensive monitoring and (possibly unconstitutional) profiling of Muslim-Americans that’s already in place. They would exploit anti-Muslim sentiment to score cheap shots against Washington rivals. They would warn their citizenry to eschew “political correctness” and get smart to the danger of Muslims everywhere “trying to kill Americans” — the very words spoken by Illinois Republican congressman Joe Walsh just days after the slaughter in Oak Creek.
But now, in the aftermath of the shootings in Oak Creek, isn’t it time to confront the actual terrorists in our midsts? As Peter Bergen, a TIME contributor and CNN national security analyst recently pointed out, white supremacist and far-right violence has claimed more lives in the U.S. since 9/11 than its Islamist counterpart. In his own deranged writings, Anders Breivik, the far-right Norwegian responsible for one of the worst massacres in his country’s history, liberally cites the writings of neo-Nazi and Islamophobic websites based in the U.S. A recent analysis of the more than 300 cases of domestic terrorism since 9/11 found, in the words of the New Yorker’s Steve Coll, that “all of the most frightening cases — involving chemical, biological, and radiological materials — arose from right-wing extremists or anarchists. None arose from Islamist militancy.”
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Yet no politician is calling for federal hearings on the threat of white supremacists in the U.S. — the type of neo-Mccarthyist agit-prop staged by New York congressman Pete King earlier this year when he held a hearing on the dangers of “Islamic radicalization” within Muslim-American communities. In 2009, when the Department of Homeland Security issued a nine-page report on “Right-Wing Extremism”, the U.S.’s right-wing punditocracy went into overdrive, lambasting the report as an attempt to smear Republicans as a whole. The analyst who wrote it would leave the DHS a year later; his small team of domestic terrorism analysts was effectively shut down. One of the report’s findings warned of growing numbers of disaffected Army vets turning to neo-Nazi hate groups.
In Oak Creek, there’s little time for recrimination and anger. On Thursday, the Sikh congregation returned to its temple, ritually cleaning and purifying it. They are keeping exposed one bullet hole in the wall, a mark of remembrance that speaks volumes of the strength of this community. Yes, the country ought to get to know such an inspiring, brave set of fellow Americans better — and, of course, understand what the difference between a Sikh and a Muslim is. But the real question that needs an answer is why one type of hate seems more tolerable than another.