Yesterday afternoon, my husband and I were driving our daughter to sleepaway camp when I received a voice message from a high school friend. Knowing that I go offline on Sundays, she wanted to be sure that I knew about the shootings that had happened at a Wisconsin Sikh temple a few hours before--shootings that directly affected the life and family of one of our other friends, N.
N (with whom I just got to spend a lot of wonderful time at our high school reunion last weekend) is married to a Sikh man. They live in a suburb of Milwaukee, and are friendly with other people in the Sikh community there. Apparently when N's mother-in-law comes for extended visits, the Oak Creek temple is the one she regularly attends.
N's husband was working at the hospital yesterday when the shooting went down. Thank God for that. But they already know that someone they know is among the dead, and N is waiting for the rest of the victims' names to be released this morning.
It is a ghastly time. It is surreal.
N is trying to fight through anger and fear to find things to be grateful for. She texted me last night that if the shooter had arrived a little later it would have been much worse, with more people present overall, and women and children standing right outside the sanctuary area where the shootings occurred.
But the fear won't subside immediately for my friends even after the CNN crews have packed away their equipment and America's attention has been diverted elsewhere. Since Sikh men wear turbans and many ignorant people mistake them for Muslims, some of the 700+ hate crimes committed against Sikhs in America since 2001 have been the result of misdirected rage about terrorism, including the fatal shooting of an Arizona Sikh man shortly after 9/11, and the murders of two elderly Sikh men who were out for a walk in California in March.
Now the name of the gunman has been released, and news coverage will shift to trying to ascertain a motive for this tragedy.
But religious hatred does not need a motive, and it happens all too often. As Stephen Prothero pointed out in his book Religious Literacy, most Americans know shockingly little about their own religions, let alone the traditions and beliefs of others. And that has got to change. Prothero advocates a mandatory world religions course in public high schools, and I am coming around to his point of view.
Ignorance breeds hatred. Hatred gives rise to violence. Although education in religious pluralism cannot entirely eradicate hatred, it can certainly make a difference.
The Sikh ceremonial photo is used with permission of Shutterstock.com.