These things are hard to think about. They are painful to feel. They engender confusion and rage. After the shooting at the Gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin two weeks ago, I have found it so difficult to think about the incident and the aftermath. I can’t seem to intellectualize the story without thinking about what it felt like for those inside.
Immediately, I think of all the mandirs and gurdwaras I’ve sat in. I know what they feel like, what they look like, what they smell like and sound like. I know how loud and boisterous prayer there can be – the clanging of symbols and the women singing, and how soft and silent – the hushed humming of hymns by elders. Immediately, I’m transported to those moments. When I think of violence in that scene, my brain experiences a moment of cognitive dissonance. And then, a wash of sadness, pain, confusion and rage.
These are the hallmarks of terrorism, though. These feelings of confusion and emotional dissonance. This is what terrorism intends. This is what violence does.
This violence, though, is of a kind. It was fueled by bigoted hatred. It was fueled by a racialized rage. It was targeted.
It was not, as it has been called, “senseless.” Nor was it the same as the Colorado movie theater shooting; it was not random. These incidents occurred within days of each other so they are coloring and colored by each other. The things they have in common are apparently only two: these acts of violence were committed by white men, who purchased their guns legally. Many have written about the need for stronger gun laws, and some have written about the racial dynamics herein. Some have even written about the unnamed racism and Islamophobia in the impulse to educate the country about Sikhism (as it is different from Islam) in an effort to clear up any misunderstanding. And then there is the deep beauty of the Sikh faith.
All these points are vital. Race is playing a role in the way we talk about James Holmes, and Michael Page. It is playing a role in the way we talk about their motives: are they “crazy?” It is playing a role in the extraordinary search through our collective consciousness to find a rationale for their actions. And failing to find something, the age-old question: Are they “mentally stable?” Compare and contrast this with the incident in which NYPD shot and killed Darrius Kennedy, a man reported to be “mentally ill.” Darrius was black. Darrius was shot 12 times. As NYC officials are scrambling to justify that use of deadly force by appealing to the fact that Mr. Kennedy had a history of mental instability, we see the raced and classed treatment of these men, and these incidents.
These nuances, and political framings are helpful, actually. What has made this process so tenuous, I realize, is what is being asked of me. Of us all. We seek explanation. We seek understanding. These things do exist, of course. These men had motives. But these are the wrong questions.
We don’t need to ONLY understand their motives and their lives. We need to understand what violence does. We need to understand what racially motivated violence does, in particular. It seeps into our consciousness, it redraws boundaries of safety (movie theaters and temples are no longer “safe”), it makes it seem as though we are not safe anywhere.
This feeling is all too familiar to many of us, black, brown, immigrant, poor, female-bodied, gender non-conforming, non-white, differently-abled, queer, trans etc. This feeling is fear, terror, even. That we are not safe. That is country is not for us. That our difference makes us targets.
It removes our belonging. That is what violence does.