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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