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Shooting in Wisconsin: Public Grief and the Art of Discourse

Two weeks ago, a gunman entered a movie theater and killed twelve people. In the days following the shootings in Aurora, there were discussions. We spoke of inadequate gun laws. Or we argued that this had nothing to do with guns. Mostly, though, we felt guilty because we shouldn't really be talking about it like this at all.

Grief: Personal Versus Public

When I was seven years old, my paternal uncle died. He was in his early forties and it was a surprise. There is the loss that one feels because any death reminds us that our number is coming up soon, but there's also the loss we feel because space of that dead person is unoccupied and will forever be so. In the case of my uncle, he was kind and funny and we were and still are at a loss for his presence in our lives. I remember watching the adults in my life grieve that moment, each one processing differently. Some wept and fell inside themselves. Some were angry and sought out people to blame. Some recognized that my uncle's poor diet and lifestyle choices were factors in his demise and shaped up accordingly. There was a lot of tension within the family because people were sad and didn't know how to say, "I'm sad, this thing that happened scares me, I don't want it to happen again, but I know that it ultimately will." Being angry makes you feel powerful and it offers a better alternative to feeling alone and afraid. It doesn't actually save you from feeling alone and scared, though.

Eight years later, my maternal aunt died of a brain aneurysm. Whereas my mother is a powerful, go getter type, my aunt was the kind of woman who would make your favorite food or knit a sweater for you on demand. It was beautiful to have a woman like that in my life to compliment my mother. Together they taught me a lot about womanhood. Brain aneurysms are funny things because they're not exactly easy to prevent and one rarely knows when they're coming. My aunt was a healthy woman who took care of herself in her late 50s. She was active and, well, the point I'm trying to make is that her death was unexpected. 

There's something about the unexpected that brings out the truth of us. 

Surprise strips us of the notions of who we are and we're left only with true, unfiltered expressions of ourselves. Something I noticed on the day that my aunt died is that most adults deal with tragedy and surprise in the same way every time. In other words, we all resort to the same behavior, even if the circumstances are different.

Patterns make processing easier. I mean, here's this bad thing that has happened to you, so are you going to sit around ruminating about how you're going to process it and how your patterns might not even be appropriate here or are you going to just feel what you feel? I don't know about you, but I find feeling what I feel more time efficient. I like to have my grief processing out of the way as soon as possible.

But. I don't know that this is appropriate in terms of its application to public tragedy.

We've been surprised by a turn of events in which a sacred space has been violated by unnatural and violent death. Yesterday, in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, seven members of a Sikh gurdwara were killed when a lone gunmen armed with semiautomatic handguns opened fire into a crowd of worshippers. Like the two major "surprise deaths" that occurred in my family, the shootings in Aurora and in Oak Creek exist as our unwanted little "What the hell just happened?!" twins. Given the close time proximity of their occurrence, we're naturally falling back on our patterns. Those of us, myself included in this group, who tend to grieve through addressing policy reform (read gun control) are doing that, those of us who grieve through actual grieving are doing that and some of us are adopting the "this is definitely the end of the world, I'm buying freeze dried food" plan.

Subpar Discourse #1: The Art of (Un)Fairly Targeting a Minority

Some things you can't do much about -- in this case, you can't do much about the fact that you're going to feel sad when people die or that you feel scared when places like worship spaces and movie theaters are now suspect. There are, however, small things that we can do that don't require large amounts of effort except in that they require navel gazing and verbal discipline.

For example, the discussions that are differentiating Sikhs and Muslims: are they borne out of simple good intention to help people who may misperceive the two as being similar, or is the media using the distinction to imply something Rinku Sen of ColorLines pointed out:

 "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." 

Link brought to my attention by Fatima Price Khan, aka my personal identity news aggregator, who you MUST follow on Facebook if you're remotely interested in conversations like this.

This discourse of how a Muslim is not a Sikh and how Sikhs are a "peace loving people" distracts from the more important point that even if Sikhs were awful, war loving people, it's horribly unfair that someone just walked into a temple of theirs and shot at them. Nothing they are or are not will ever justify or negate what has happened to them. This particular discussion distracts from the point that they were targeted because many Americans have been living on a free pass that exempts from the crime of ignorance regarding the different.

When my husband was a child, Indira Ghandi, the Prime Minister of India was shot by her bodyguard who was a Sikh. Tariq watched as the adults in his life stood watch outside of their Sikh family friends' homes with the intent of protecting them. Tariq, unlike you and me, has an intimate familiarity with the targeting of minorities, the violence and fear that accompanies it, but also of the love and bravery it can inspire within us. "I don't understand why the media here only takes opportunities to discuss people in the context of these events," he said to me tonight. "Why don't people already know about Sikhs, why do they wait until something bad happens to take that opportunity." I'll add to his sentiment by saying that if I met a genie who were willing to grant me three wishes one of them would be that the media would assume their responsibility to educate the population of America regarding her diversity so that we wouldn't be distracted with having to play catch up when something like this happens.

Sikhs have been in North America since 1848. CNN just told you about them. Chew on that for a while. When CNN juxtaposes Muslims and Sikhs and talks about "peace", it highlights two ways in which it has failed us as an information service to the public.  First, they failed when they didn't teach us about how "peaceful" Sikhs (or Muslims) were before these events took place and second they fail when they create an environment in which the discussion of a group being "unfairly" targeted is remotely legitimate. Our participation in the failed discourse and refusal to call out its absurdity is, of course, our failure. Finally, this is non-sequitar but the other two wishes have something to do with exorbitant wealth and my children happily being able to make and serve five course meals while I write blog posts.

Subpar Discourse #2: Oh, He Was Just Craaazy. Whew!

As someone who has a medical diagnosis based on anxiety and who's close to individuals with more "dramatic" diagnoses, I'm irate with these conversations. They offer an artificial sense of absolution that is very far from helping us discover the real truth behind these incidents.

"Well, that person was, you know, crazy." Is it too far fetched to assume that everyone who has ever killed someone is either a little "mentally ill" and maybe a little stupid? Who, I ask, in their right mind would take another person's life without considering the ramifications of their behavior? Forget the esoteric, "I shall not take a life" argument against murder, and just focus on the pragmatic "I don't want to be someone's prison bitch" argument. When you engage in the palliative effects of blaming a tragedy like this on "mental illness," the conversations that need to be had are suffocated beneath the rhetoric. When we blame mental illness for a shooting like this one or that of Aurora, there are two things that happen: mental illness becomes further stigmatized and we absolve ourselves of the responsibility of exploring the contexts in which these deaths occur. 

How We Get There is As Important As Where We're Going

The details aren't out at this point, but it's clear that a white, middle aged man walked into a gurdwara and shot seven Sikh worshippers. He most likely did this because they were foreign, strange and represented threats to the sense of order he needed to survive. Maybe he did think they were Muslims, but maybe he didn't. I don't know. He killed them because he felt their differentness was a threat to his survival. He may have killed them because he was angry about a world that was changing too fast or out of a sense of duty. I will tell you this, though, his actions don't exist in a vacuum. He breathed the air that we all breathe and participated in the same discourses that we do. 

There is no, pardon the phrasing, silver bullet when it comes to discussing surprise tragedies. There is no one answer. And there are factors that led to this shooting that did not have anything to do with Aurora and then there are factors that intersect with it. Our job as a conscientious members of society is to thoughtfully and carefully evaluate the way we talk about this moment. These talks and how they occur are actually more important than the conclusions we come to, I think. The emotional distance that exists between us and the strangers who lost their lives in Oak Creek offers us an important opportunity to reenvision our personal approaches to public grief.

We should, to honor them fully, take it.


Photo Credit: ljlandre via photo pin cc

Reader Comments (13)

My brain tends to shrivel inward when things like this happen. I'm a suppressor. I suppressed my mother's death, I avoid debate regarding public tragedy, and the debate I sometimes catch on Facebook or Twitter upsets me. I don't like seeing my friends & family fight over something that has already happened. My own brother posted something about the kids being at the movie theater, and I didn't reply to it because even though I disagreed with him, I felt that adding to the discourse served no purpose. So I don't get involved in debates such as these, or the Chick-Fil-A thing, none of it.
I have said nothing regarding the theater shooting, this latest shooting, or 911. I have cried in private for the loss of life - more than once - and that is how I deal with it. I am old enough to know I cannot make sense of these incidents - I can only pray that they won't be followed up with copycats and further loss.

August 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKaren Sugarpants

I cry for these losses of life, just like I cry for every loss of life. Yes, the news media does a craptastic job in their compare and contrast with Sikhs and Muslims. Yes, we stigmatize the mentally I'll when we say people like the Colorado gunman or the Arizona gunman were crazy.

I tend to lean toward hoping they were mentally ill, simply because it is easier for me to accept than the fact that there are multiple hate filled people running around our country trying to kill people. Mental illness can be treated, hatred and bigotry cannot. I am the opposite of Karen above, because I want to debate the situation with everyone I can find. Even in relation to the chik-fil-a issue, I want people to be convinced of what I see as the truth, even if I can't persuade them all.

August 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBecca

Tell Tariq that growing up I could see a Sikh temple when I walk out from my mother's house. Years ago there was a shooting there during a service. The gunman was Sikh as well. Didn't matter. People died.

Aurora was a little personal for me. I have family who live there. They go to that movie theater. And normally they would have been there for that particular show. And yeah, I understand Karen's suppression because when my cousin goes to those late night premiere shows, it's with kids in tow.

And you've read my blog I believe when I went through a number of losses of family members over a short period of time. I have no problem of grieving publicly If only it helps others understand. And I have already posted on Facebook about this shooting -- that the religious beliefs of these folks doesn't matter; all that matters is that they were people who were killed. Because religious beliefs should not explain nor justify someone's death.

August 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKailyn

"...he felt that their differentness was a threat to his survival." I completely agree. When India Gandhi was killed and the Sikhs were targeted, that was an action to a reaction. I my opinion, that is still easier to control. However, in instances like this when people are simply hateful due to ignorance, it is a much scarier deal. There is no silver bullet. I agree. I just wish that there was an effective way to help spread more understanding about the minorities living in the States. Any ideas (other than your blog :)).

Thx for the great perspective.

August 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTariq

Here's the rub, it's what Tariq said... ""Why don't people already know about Sikhs...?" Is it because Americans are so parochial? I'd say probably. I tell folks I'd like to visit Gibraltar and nobody can point to it on a map. Come to think of it, few could point to India. We are a xenophobic lot. The prevailing sentiment among well-meaning people will be "Sikhs aren't Muslims" in a poor effort to mitigate, though the intention seems a good as we can muster in our ignorance.

America is a nation of casual racists. Not out-and-out haters who would hurt anyone's kids or go shoot up somebody's place of worship, but joke tellers on holidays who turn defensive about their freedom of speech if someone points out they shouldn't be saying things like this in front of the kids. But then, all families - of whatever origins - have this problem don't they?

I know my people. My pasty-faced, scrawny legged, tattooed bald guys. I live with them. Every time I hear one of them say "I'm not against Obama because he's black" I know for sure that this is exactly the reason they're against him, seeing as how no one but they brought up the subject. And I feel as if I've been talking against these winds for a long time, and to little effect. Free Speech has become the popular cover for racism and sexism. The clever mind of the self-justified is always so creative.

I send my prayers out to the murderer's family, who must be stricken. I will hold the families of the victims in the Light, as we say. Because theirs are the choices that make the next part of the story. But I'll save the bulk of my prayers for my poor, sick,distracted country, so beset by demigods it has lost all sense of itself.

Men of all stripes seem to have no problem killing for the sake of holy writ. Which is the first sign they didn't read it.

August 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRW

So, I knew who Sikh were before this happened. I didn't realize they had been here since the 1800's and had maintained their culture that whole time. (impressive, since I haven't maintained a fraction of what my ancestors immigrated here with) I don't know if it is the responsibility of the news organizations to educate unprompted. Since, people who are not white and are just living their lives are not news any more than hicks in a trailer park if they aren't doing well, something they shouldn't be. However, given that most people lack exposure, it is unfortunate that the "education" comes in the form of "is not equal to". It is also extremely unfortunate that a variety of peace loving faiths/groups get represented by their violent extremist sides. The only thing I can do to change it is take every opportunity to educate the people around me when the opportunity presents itself and raise my daughters right.
My feelings on the "but they are crazy" is a little different than yours. I know people who I would list firmly in the "not crazy just mean/angry" who I think could/would commit a violent act. (and have, many times to the ones closest to them) I'm firmly a crazy person myself, related to a lot of other crazy people, and I think that I would classify "hears voices and is having a psychotic break because they are the age when paranoid schizophrenia presents" far differently than racist fuck who shoots innocent people. If being racist was a psychological diagnosis then we should be putting drugs in the drinking water in some parts of the country.
I have got to write that post about race/etc I keep meaning to. Time to get over my fear.
Thanks, you make me think, and you enrich my life with your perspective.

August 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAmelia Sprout

Faiqa, thank you for helping me to understand this better.

August 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBarb

A few things, but first I love this post. Per usual, you and your hammer are making proverbial nails everywhere fear for their lives.

1) Most Americans simply don't care about the differences between turbans. Period. If they cared, they would already know the difference after a Sikh man was killed shortly after 9/11. There was a brief rise in articles on awareness, but look where we ended up anyway. For most Americans, head coverings are head coverings unless the person bears a cross. And brown is brown, unless a taco is being served or a roof getting laid, then that is a slightly different shade of brown. The job-stealing kind, which must be less threatening since White Supremacists aren't targeting churches (keeping in mind that here in Missouri a mosque was burnt to the freaking ground over the weekend. Sigh.)

2) I have to admit the radio silence on this has really hurt my heart. After the theatre shootings, there was a huge public keening -- you could not open up Facebook, Twitter, etc without seeing it. Conversely? A gurdwara shooting, a place of WORSHIP, has not garnered nearly the type of outrage that a midnight viewing of a mediocre movie did. For me, the relative silence is telling. And don't get me wrong, I understand The Whys. Where most folks can imagine themselves at a midnight screening of a mediocre movie, most canNOT imagine themselves in a gurdwara.

3) Also, I have been saddened by the poor choice of words from the Sikh community in their efforts to distance themselves from the Muslim community. Obviously, the elephant (no pun intended) in the room is that Muslims and Sikhs have had their own battles waged for centuries. And over the past 20 years, I have heard many, many disparaging words from both sides of the wall on that one.

I try not to judge my fellow white people, but damn. It is hard. I've been to the small, community gurdwara here in Kansas City and I've been the gorgeous, fancy Panja Sahib gurdwara in Hasan Abdal. I know that I have experiences that lend a better understanding. But does compassion need to always arise from a better understanding? Does it?

August 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKelli Oliver George

I had a whole long comment written and I just deleted it because I don't even know what I think about these things anymore. Mental illness? Maybe. But maybe not.

Here's the thing: We don't expose ourselves to each other. We segregate ourselves because we feel more comfortable with people who are like us. This is a generalization, of course, but it comes from personal experience.

It is far easier to see a group as the "other," to dehumanize them, when you have never had a conversation with someone from that group, when you've never seen them laugh or cry or otherwise behave just like you. That is what I imagine went on with people who lynched African-Americans years ago, what drove Hitler, and what would possess a group to torture and kill a gay teenager.

While I would surmise that the shootings in Aurora where a product of some kind of psychotic break, what happened in Wisconsin might be something different and quite frankly, more sinister.

August 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMegan

Aneurysms aren't easy to prevent but they are detectable and often treatable. I had an MRI done right after my mom died of one. What an odd synchronicity. I wrote a post this morning and talked about my mom's aneurysm and this is the second post today I have ready about someone dying of one.

August 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCorey Feldman

@Karen Sugarpants: Everyone deals with tragedy differently, like we discussed on Twitter, there's no "one" way. I think as long as something works for you and you're able to function (mostly) well in your life, then it's fine.

@Becca: Do you really feel that hatred and bigotry can't be treated? I think they can sometimes.

@Kailyn: Exactly.

@Tariq: I guess one solution would be for people to simply be interested in each other. I think everyone who visits this blog in order to learn about others is a great hope for all of us.

@RW: Amazing comment. My experience is that everyone everywhere is a casual racist. I think, as Americans, we tend to be more sensitive about it which generally prompts debate. Which is a good thing.

@Amelia Sprout: Thanks so much for *your* comments and perspectives. It's an odd issue in terms of the news -- on the one hand, you're right to question my position about whether it's their responsibility or not. On the other hand, I think there was a time when there were more casual human interest pieces. It's not about highlighting the "brown people" as much as it is about presenting the diversity. I think people in trailer parks should be reported on, too... there are a slew of unfortunate (and I'm thinking perhaps unfair) opinions about those folks as well. Information and knowledge are the ultimate solutions.

Barb: You are so welcome, thanks so much for the encouragement.

Kelli Oliver George: You certainly have a point. Children are full of compassion, yet often lack knowledge. Wish we could all keep that in our hearts. Since you bring up the Sikh/Muslim dynamics of the past, I'm worried about the repeated insistence on peace as a qualifying characteristics for either of these religions. Yes, we are a generally peaceful people, but there is an acknowledgement to the pragmatic necessity of war. I get upset just thinking about how people will may focus on that.
I had a whole long comment written and I just deleted it because I don't even know what I think about these things anymore. Mental illness? Maybe. But maybe not.

@Megan: Do you think that lynchings were a result of not being exposed to black people? Most whites lived and worked with black people - many were raised by them. Is it possible that the people who propagate this violence against "minorities" are more concerned with a loss of status than they are ignorant? Something to think about.

@Corey Feldman: Agreed. My mom had one after her sister died. The point is, of course, that it's not a routine screening. The only reason my mom got one was because her sister died, you know?

August 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterFaiqa

They lived and worked with them, but they were still separated from them. They were still "the other" and something less than human. Although I'm sure the loss of status is a factor, especially since they don't see those minorites as real people.

August 8, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMegan

A beautiful post. And I have loads to say, but I always get into trouble for overly long comments. I'll just go into a bit:

I remember when a Sikh man was killed in AZ just after 9/11, there was a bunch of press about how the killer had mistaken him for a Muslim. The implication was not that that would have been okay, but that it would have been understandable. That perturbed me. Don't we want to be identified as individuals first? There was a slight flurry of explanation of the differences between Sikh and Muslim. Most people pronounced it SEEK.

On our local NPR station, I think yesterday, there was a good interview with a rep from the temple in WI. He didn't seem to push away from being Muslim as much as explain Sikhism. But I also think it's natural to differentiate. My hs students always made it VERY CLEAR that they were from DR, not PR. Or that they were from Grenada, not Trinidad. And the students who spoke Cantonese were highly insulted if you asked about their Mandarin. And it was very important that no one confuse the two. Isn't this similar? If it's okay for people to represent their own culture in those instances (sadly, usually putting down another), how is this different?

I mean, when I lived in Spain, it was a joke amongst some of the English speakers that the Canadians wanted to make sure that no one thought they were from the USA. They owned a lot of Maple Leaf gear.

August 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKristin

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