16 days after a crazed gunman walked into a Colorado movie theater and killed 12 people, a crazed gunman walked into a Wisconsin Sikh temple and killed 6 people. I'm no Mayan, but I might be keeping my activities and my children close to home on Tuesday, August 21st. Americans are getting into a bad habit of committing random acts of violence against their fellow Americans.
Wade Michael Page -- the Sikh temple shooter -- was a 40-year-old man with something of a criminal record thanks to his tendency to drink and drive. He served in the Army until he was discharged in 1998 for excessive drinking. He spent the next fourteen years of his life bouncing from odd job to odd job. His only consistent gigs seems to have been making and promoting his neo-Nazi hate music and preparing for the racial holy war he hoped would come. He was on the Southern Poverty Law Center's watch list for white supremacists, and his body bore the tattoos of his campaign.
Just weeks before his shooting spree, Page broke up with his girlfriend, moved into a duplex, and stopped showing up for work.
Then he went to a gun shop, took and passed a background check, and successfully purchased a 9mm handgun.
His closest friends say they knew he espoused the white supremacist beliefs, hallmark among them, of course, hatred of non-whites. They never pegged him to be one to act on that hatred, though.
Guess they didn't know their friend as well as they thought.
Page is now dead. He was killed during a shoot-out with the police that arrived on the scene of his murder mystery.
So here we are. Two inexplicable events of inexplicable human suffering brought about by some inexplicable breed of fear and loathing. Two tragedies that we will likely never understand, with one gunman alive but deranged and another gunman deranged but dead.
I of course grapple with the events themselves, but I am also absorbed now with questions about the aftermaths to them. To my mind, there is something different about how we responded to the movie theater murders as compared to how we are responding to the Sikh temple murders. They are uncomfortable questions.
After the movie theater murders, there was round-the-clock news coverage on every angle of the tragedy: survivor interviews, remembrances of the victims, candlelight vigils, the beginnings of a gun control debate. NBC broadcast the Today Show and the evening news from the movie theater parking lot. President Obama and Mitt Romney issued statements and paid visits, as did Hollywood movie stars and local pro-sports stars.
After the Sikh temple murders, the news has covered the shooting by leading with the story, unless there's something big from the Olympics to report on. We know about the temple president who tried to fend of Page with a butter knife, but we know relatively little about the other victims. NBC is camped out in London to cover the second week of the games. From the White House, President Obama said he was "heartbroken" about the Sikh temple shootings, and urged his fellow Americans to engage in some "soul searching." From Des Moines, Mitt Romney said he participated in a moment of silence -- in Chicago -- to honor the victims of the "Sheik" temple shootings. Oops, Mr. Romney. A Sheik is a Muslim term for a village leader. A Sikh practices a religion that has nothing to do with being a Muslim.
Perhaps I have just coincidentally not been as close to my television or to my Google in recent days as compared to my interactions with those two sources in the days following the movie theater murders. I don't think that's it, but I acknowledge that I haven't been scientific about tracking my viewing/news searching habits.
What if this difference in treatment is real, though, and not just a by-product of personal circumstance? What's the reason behind it?
Maybe the Sikh temple victims are the unlucky winners of the silver medal in Attention Span. Maybe we're all so glued -- and the networks are so committed -- to the Olympics coverage that we don't have time for outrage or mourning. We're too busy cheering and tabulating.
Maybe the indignation and the abject frustration we felt in response to the movie theater murders is harder to replicate in the wake of the Sikh temple murders because of the difference in their execution. I was certainly up in arms (no pun intended) in July when I read about the nature and extent of the weaponry and body armor the movie theater shooter sported during his spree. It is harder to muster those same emotions to the same degree here.
Page bought the type of handgun the Supreme Court has said is legal under the Constitution. It is the type of weapon we could compromise on in the gun control debate -- it is not made for war, it is made for hunting and/or self defense. It can kill, but it can't kill as quickly as an automatic or as viciously as some other instrument of death. And Page was allowed to take the gun home only after he passed a background check.
Perhaps a background check that doesn't pick up on a person's documented ties to white supremacist hate groups isn't a reliable background check. But it will be hard to win the argument that we should limit the purchase of an otherwise legal gun to someone on the basis of his speech or associations. Because the Constitution also protects both of those rights -- free speech and free association. Big time. Maybe even bigger time than the right to holster a gun.
It's far easier to make a convincing argument that a murder spree like the movie theater one is absurd because it was committed with weaponry that has no place in the hands of ordinary civilians. In that sense, it somehow seems easier to get angry about the very fact of the movie theater shootings. Just because the argument is easier doesn't make it better or more worthwhile. But an easier argument probably makes it easier to jump on a bandwagon. Maybe that explains some of the difference in the reactions. I am not sure.
Because maybe, unfortunately, maybe we are reacting differently to the Sikh temple murders because of who its victims were. That is a revolting possibility to confront.
There is first the easily identified racial distinction. I believe the movie theater shooting victims were, to a person, white. I believe the six victims of the Sikh temple shooting were, to a person, non-white, with names that are difficult for many of us to pronounce. Five were non-white men, with long beards and a turban on their head.
** An earlier version of this post mistakenly stated that a (white) police officer was among the six victims. That officer survived the shooting, but suffered several significant injuries. I apologize for my error. **
Do we collectively react differently because we collectively see less of ourselves in the images and stories related to the Sikh temple shooting? My family does not look like that, my family does not talk like that, my family does not worship like that. My family will not die like that. Is that the source of the disconnect?
Or is there a different side to this racial element? Have we become desensitized or immune to the horrors of mass murder when it relates to religious worship? There are stories every day about wars -- large scale or small -- that turn on the question of religion. Openly embracing your faith can be an act of bravery or an act of defiance and maybe even an act of provocation here, there and everywhere. So when someone dies in performing an act of faith, have we come to see that as simply a statistic bearing out?
These are gruesome questions prodding at gruesome realities. The only answer I have right now is that I wish none of this was happening. I am at a loss for other answers. But I will keep seeking.