Shooting at the Oak Creek Sikh Temple

Like many of you, I spent Sunday morning worshiping freely as the Constitution guarantees my right to do.  My biggest worry was that our church had a summer combined service and I inadvertently sat in a pew which someone from another service perceived as her own.

Members of the Oak Creek Sikh Temple also attempted to worship freely this morning.  Before the morning was over 6 members of that temple were shot by a lone gunman, also reported dead.  Women and children hid in closets and classrooms while several dead remained outside where they fell.  Reportedly, a number of the dead were Sikh religious leaders.

An as-of-yet unidentified 20 year veteran Greenfield, Wisconsin police hero killed the gunman after having been shot himself several times. In India, tension exists between Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims.  Sikhs immigrate to the United States for a better life and to worship freely.  Approximately 500,000 Sikhs currently reside in the United States.  Violence sadly has followed them to Oak Creek, Wisconsin.

The Sikh religion is unfamiliar to most Americans who mistake Sikhs in the traditional turban hair covering alternatively as either Muslims or Hindus.  They are neither.  Sikhism originated in the Punjab region in India about 500 years ago.  One tenet of this sect is that men do not cut their hair.  The turban is also considered sacred and keeps their hair manageable for everyday activities.

Sikhs have beliefs similar to most Americans; they believe in one Supreme Being.  Sikhs also believe in diligent, honest, hard work and that they should share their success with others.  This community has suffered much since 9/11.  They are unfairly subjected to epithets and slurs directed towards Muslims.  It is bad enough to be discriminated against because of your affiliation with a certain group rather than be judged by the content of your character.  I can hardly comprehend what it would be like to be discriminated against based on mistaken identity.  Hundreds of hate crimes have been perpetrated against Sikhs since 9/11.

According to the published paper Challenges to the Sikh Identity in the West, “The war on terror has not only increased racial violence, harassment, and adverse employment actions against Sikhs with turbans; it has also led to a more abstract questioning of the proper degree to which visible immigrant minority groups should be part of mainstream Western society.”  Ironic when one considers that the identifying turban means that the wearer belongs to a sect which considers honest hard work sacred. Many years ago, I had the privilege of working with Sikh insurance executives who were models of professional excellence.

Last year, the members of the Oak Creek Temple were visited by Wisconsin State Representatives who were concerned because of vandalism and violence directed towards temple members, according to the Oak Creek Patch.   A local Oak Creek alderman reported that the temple was an asset to the community and that there had “never been any problems with the people there.”

Hats off to those representatives who took the time to reach out to a misunderstood ethnic minority in their community.  Those of us who work in law enforcement often hear about the importance of diversity.  Typically, we focus on diversity in the workplace, as police departments strive to hire officers who represent the communities which they protect and serve.  However, diversity is also about those community members themselves and understanding how their differences and practices may influence behavior and, apparently in this case, cause them to become vulnerable to violence.

Sadly, the Sikh Temple members now join the ranks of victims of other Active Shooters such as Jared Loughner, shooter of Gabby Giffords and others and the Aurora Colorado shooter, whom I refuse to mention by name.  The advantage of this perpetrator’s death as police neutralized his power to hurt others is that justice was swift.  The public will not have to pay to house and feed him, to provide free legal representation or to pay psychiatrists to examine him.  I don’t believe that there is a sufficient psychiatric explanation for evil.

What can we, bruised and shocked by the violence in Colorado, do to respond to this incident just weeks later?  We can pray for the Oak Creek Sikh Temple members. Their hymns are different and their prayers made in a different tongue. Though they look unfamiliar to us, their beliefs are much the same as any of ours who traveled to church today to worship One Supreme Being, however we understand God.

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Anne Bremer, MCJ is Law Enforcement Today’s Managing Editor.  She is an American Red Cross nationally-certified Diversity instructor and serves in the Sex Offender Investigative Unit of a state police agency in the Mid-Atlantic region.