On Sunday 5th August 2012, a white supremacist shot and killed six people attending religious services at the suburban Wisconsin Sikh Gurdwara. The shooter who was identified as Wade Michael Page, also seriously injured another congregation member and shot a police officer 12 times before taking his own life. Harpreet Singh Saini, the son of Paramjit Kaur who was shot dead on that fateful day, would later describe the killer as “a man fuelled by hatred who walked into our local gurdwara.”
Had Page entered the Gurdwara normally, Sikhs would have served him with an Indian meal along with tea, juice and milk in the langar (community kitchen) without anybody asking why he was there. Even in the Darbar Hall, where hymns are sung and prayers are recited, he would have been able to read translations in English projected on the screen and been able to understood what was preached in the Gurdwara. Nobody would have questioned him except if he needed help. Hatred in Page’s heart would have melted away, had he paused for a moment to experience a vibrant and welcoming atmosphere. His shooting spree started too early and too soon.
Despite the fact there has been a Sikh presence in America since 1899, a vast majority of the population are still unaware of the world’s fifth major religion and its followers. Even days after the massacre in the Gurdwara, local police officials admitted that they had little idea who the Sikhs were until the heinous crime of Wade Michael Page forced the two to interact and discover how much they had in common. It is unfortunate that it took the killing of 6 innocent worshippers to initiate a much-needed dialogue between Sikhs and non-Sikhs, not only in Oak Creek, Wisconsin but across the world. Three months after the tragedy, the families of the victims came together to create a special video called “We are Sikhs” to show that they would not let violence and hate overcome love and peace. The Sikh community in Oak Creek arose from the tragedy with a clear message. “We will not be beaten.”
The world witnessed how the Sikh community opened up its doors and hearts and showed its courage in the the time of mourning. Some media outlets were quick to suggest that the attack had happened because the attacker did not know the difference between Sikhs and Muslims/Arabs. Others suggested that Sikhs should blame others for the mistaken identity whilst make more efforts to distinguish themselves so that future attacks could be avoided. However the community in unity refused to blame anyone else. Harpreet Singh Saini described it best as “An attack on one of us is an attack on all of us.” Instead the Sikh community rallied people of all faiths and none, and built personal relationships with those all around.
The massacre in Oak Creek highlighted why it was important to expand the boundaries of our social circles. Get to know your neighbour and those around you. Get to know them and they in turn, will get to know you. Under the turban, hijab or kippah, there is likely a person like you with hopes, dreams and a family. By humanising each other through friendships, we further push away hate and prejudice. The Oak Creek massacre is another reminder for us to continue to work to create a more inclusive society- for all our sake.