What have I learned from the tragic shooting that took the lives of six Sikhs in Oak Creek, Wisconsin on Sunday? It reminded me of who I am.
People wept for the senseless loss of life. Some were afraid to come out of their homes. They complained that their leaders had segregated them and that their pleas for justice had fallen on deaf ears. And now, they could not even worship in peace. This was the atmosphere into which Sikhism was born over 500 years ago.
Upon seeing all of the pain and suffering around him, the founder of Sikhism, Guru Nanak Dev ji, asked of his creator, “Have you no sympathy?” His ensuing path of community service, truth and enlightenment laid the foundations for the peace-loving meditations in Sikhism. Guru Nanak Dev ji inspired us to ask the difficult questions of life, and then charged us with seeking out the simple truths behind them. “Sikh” literally means “to learn.” We walk in his footsteps today, and learn lessons along every path.
What have I learned from last weekend’s Sunday rampage?
— I learned the name of Balbir Singh Sodhi, who was gunned down on September 15th, 2001 as the first victim of hate violence from 9/11.
— I learned about the Sikh Gurudwara in New York that was burned down in 2001 by teens because they thought it was named for Osama bin Laden.
— I learned about the Sikh family beaten outside of their home in New York in 2003 by drunk individuals yelling, “Go back to your country, Bin Laden!”
Since 9/11, Sikhs have filed thousands of reports about hate crimes, workplace discrimination, school bullying and racial profiling. Valarie Kaur’s film, Divided We Fall, poignantly chronicles the hate crimes in the aftermath of 9/11. Some describe this phenomenon as “collateral damage.”
Somehow, I felt the same pain and anguish from the collateral damage this past Sunday that I experienced on 9/11. I was not entirely sure why. Are we inflicting new wounds, or are we simply opening up old, festering ones?
It is true that I have learned to overcome obstacles in the wake of 9/11, becoming the first Sikh in nearly 30 years to serve in the U.S. Army, with my turban and beard intact.
This struggle has given me strength, confidence, and an unwavering commitment to diversity.
But there is another edge to this sword. I expect to be randomly chosen for secondary screening at the airport every single time. I have learned to ignore the comments that would have ended in a brawl when I was in college. My children speak English fluently but are starting to forget their Punjabi. I have grown a thick brown skin, and feel numb to the world at times. This is the true collateral damage of 9/11. Sikhs have paid a heavy price for this tragedy over and over since then, and in my opinion, disproportionately more than any other minority.
Our hope lies within the framework of common understanding and tolerance.
I was at a White House conference just two days prior to the tragedy in Wisconsin. Anju Bhargava, founder of the Hindu American Seva Charities (HASC), LTC Ravi Chaudhary, USAF, Paul Monteiro, Associate Director of the White House Office of Public Engagement, and countless other visionaries were present to help advance interfaith collaborative efforts with a focus on diversity, cultural awareness and community service.
The White House is clearly engaged in efforts to help improve diversity and understanding. President Obama noted: “As we mourn this loss which took place at a house of worship, we are reminded how much our country has been enriched by Sikhs, who are a part of our broader American family.” His statement and actions following the events of last Sunday set the stage for a much-needed national discourse.
We may not find closure, or make sense of what happened, but we can take steps to help prevent it from happening again. There are Sikh gurudwaras in almost every major community in America.
In that spirit, I personally invite every American to visit their local Sikh house of worship this Sunday morning, sit alongside their fellow (Sikh) Americans, and partake in langar — a free vegetarian meal. We can then continue this national discourse on a more personal level, learning about each others’ differences, and start celebrating them once again.
In doing so, we will begin to understand that the enemies of diversity are the enemies of this great nation.