Monday, August 6, 2012

Appalling Media Coverage of Sikh Temple Shootings in Wisconsin

The events that transpired today at Oak Creek, Wisconsin provides further evidence that we don’t live in a post-racial society.  The attacks inflicted by a White Supremacist are deeply saddening because they show evidence of the persistence of racial hatred.  To go into a temple -  a sacred and safe space for acceptance and love - to kill people who have gathered there to worship shows that this isn’t a ‘random’ murderous spree but a deliberate and premeditated act of racial violence towards the Sikh community.

That there seemed to be a marked reluctance on the part of media analysts to call what transpired a hate crime was, to me, shocking.  When watching CNN today, I was appalled to see that the news coverage of what happened seemed more preoccupied with debating whether this constituted a “random act of violence” or an act of “domestic terrorism.”   This ridiculous discussion finally ended after the news anchors got notification that the FBI confirmed that it was indeed the latter.  Why equivocate – why not call it for what it is?  Why is there this desire to label the hate crime as being something else?  Is it because to do so is to admit the truth of what activists and community groups have been saying all along – that we actually don’t live in a happily multicultural society and that White Supremacy exists? 

CNN’s decision to then give its viewers a lesson in Sikhism versus Islam during their telecast was quite surreal. The accounts by ‘experts’ such as a blogger running a site called “Belief Blog” and an academic well-versed in police tactics (?) provided me with the following pieces of information: Sikhism is a monotheistic religion (way to go, CNN, for using Wikipedia), Sikhs are a hard-working and peaceful people (they’re model minorities!), and Sikhs are most definitely not Muslim (watch out, they’re most definitely not model minorities).  The last point was made so often that anyone with an ounce of critical thinking will see the assumptions that are embedded in this statement: Sikhs are good, Muslims are bad, and the rest of the world can rest easy knowing that Sikhs are not the type to use this event as an opportunity to launch a counter-attack.

Oh wait. Nope.  That’s not quite the case.  Just to be sure that Sikhs aren’t like the ‘evil’ Muslims, the geniuses at CNN decided to ask another guest, this time a Sikh community leader, whether “Sikhs are the type to retaliate.”  Translation: “please accept our condolences for your loss.  You’re not going to go exact revenge by going on a killing spree, are you? You’re not?  You’re peaceful.  That’s right.  Ok, we really are sorry.”

In the hours since then, I’ve read news updates from online sources. I am troubled by how news reports have focused primarily on the courage of the police forces in subduing the attacker(s).  While I wholeheartedly acknowledge the police forces’ valor in ensuring that this event did not escalate further and applaud the heroism of the cop who lost his life in the process of taking down the shooter, I don’t know why this is the primary angle that news reports have taken. 

I can’t help but contrast this with news reports written in the aftermath of the Colorado shootings, which were focused on the victimsThough I am certainly not condoning the creation of more Nancy Grace style tabloid journalism, where crime victims are provided with elaborate backstories to further the news narrative, I feel that it is important to honor the victims by writing about them.  I recognize that details are still murky, but any investigative reporter stationed at Oak Creek should have been able to talk to the friends and relatives of those who were in the temple. Right now, the victims are invisible and that, to me, feels wrong.

In keeping with the angle the media has taken, elected officials also seem more eager to praise the quick response of the police than to commiserate with victims and their families.  Consider the following statement made by Congressman Paul Ryan (R), whose district includes Oak Creek:

"I’m deeply saddened by this malicious crime and remain grateful for the selfless, dedicated service of the emergency response teams and law enforcement officials who continue to investigate this matter. As additional details are gathered, I am hopeful that we will all come together, united in a shared desire for peace and justice, and stand with the Sikh community as we grieve this loss of life."

The fact that Ryan did not even give a cursory mention of the victims and their families is puzzling.  He also seemed to want to (implicitly) distance what happened from ‘real’ Americans by emphasizing that he is standing with the “Sikh community.”  Though I understand the importance of highlighting the need to stand in solidarity with Sikhs, I feel that the way this is phrased creates a division between Sikhs and other Americans.  Couldn’t he have mentioned that this is an American tragedy?  It is as if what happened only affected Sikhs, so ‘real’ Americans can rest easy. 

It is therefore unsurprising that social media sites has been relatively silent over this event.  Sure, there are people – mostly members of the Sikh community and other people of color – who have tweeted and written status updates about the temple shootings.  Compared to the Colorado shootings, though, these tweets and status updates are few and far between.  I suspect that this is because there is the perception that what happened in Wisconsin was a tragedy facing a specific community and thus does not extend to everyone whereas  the Colorado shootings could happen to anyone and should be mourned nationally.


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