Flags in Columbia County, in Georgia and around the country were lowered to half-staff this past week in public response to the massacre at the Sikh temple in Wisconsin.
More than a few people asked: Why this shooting? Why not for the Colorado movie-theater massacre? Why not for troops killed in Afghanistan?
The questions didn’t seem intended to begrudge the honor toward the Sikhs, but simply wondered what elevated that tragedy above others.
It’s not up to me to answer that question on behalf of the president, who gave the order for federal buildings, or Georgia’s governor, who followed with the declaration for state buildings. So I’m curious, too.
There is, however, something about the shootings of those six Sikhs and the suicide of the shooter that resonates and makes it worthy of greater attention: the fact that the shooter quite likely chose the wrong target.
A tiny religious minority, Sikhs say they’ve been persecuted since 9/11 by people who mistake them for Muslims. To the sort of pea-brained intellects who practice such sloppy bigotry, apparently all that matters is Sikh men wear turbans and beards. If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it must be a camel.
If you aren’t already aware of the difference between the faiths, feel free to look it up elsewhere. It isn’t hard. Likewise, it wouldn’t have been hard for anyone using such a lazy stereotype, the Wisconsin shooter included, to have taken 30 seconds on Wiki-pedia to figure out that Sikhs are not Muslims any more than Mormons are Jews.
But here’s the thing: Many people assume Wade Michael Page had intended to shoot Muslims because he was a hateful bigot, but instead shot Sikhs because he was an ignorant hateful bigot (which, actually, is redundant). What if he’d spent a few minutes on Google, learned the difference, and then instead shot up a mosque? Would that make the shooting any less horrific?
Of course not. But somehow it does seem worse that he not only shot innocent people, but that he very well might have shot the wrong innocent people. Either way, they’re still dead, and still innocent.
Columbia County is enriched with religious diversity. (Everywhere but in public prayers at school board meetings, that is; only Christians are invited there. But that’s a topic for a different day.) The Sikhs’ Guru Singh Sabha temple on Evans-to-Locks Road is a good example of that, as is the new Augusta Islamic Center soon to open on Old Evans Road.
Many of us harbor lingering suspicion directed at Muslims because of 9/11. Radical Muslims are fighting a religious war against us; our country is fighting a plain old secular war against them. We think we can tell the difference; they won’t.
Certainly all of us can do better than to be unable to tell the difference between those who are at war with us, and those who aren’t.
But if we don’t even bother to tell the difference between Sikhs and Muslims, we still have a long way to go before we’re any less ignorant than Wade Michael Page.
(Barry L. Paschal is publisher of The Columbia County News-Times. Email barry.
firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 706-863-6165, extension 106. Follow at twitter.com/barrypaschal.)