LAST Sunday we woke up to some tragic news: there had been a shooting at a gurudwara in a Milwaukee suburb; six Sikhs at the temple were killed, one police officer who tried to help was shot several times, and three more were wounded. As the media followed the story, we learned that the shooter, Wade Michael Page, was a US veteran, and the leader of a white supremacist punk rock band. We learned that Sikhs are not Muslims and therefore they had been unfairly targeted (yes, seriously, some journalists actually said this). We learned that white terrorists are different from brown terrorists (though we already knew that). It’s impossible to not turn into a media critic when you read these narratives. So, here are the four things I think you should read about the media coverage of this vile attack.
1. Rinku Sen has a thoughtful piece on Colorlines.com which hits all the right notes, including this bit on CNN’s coverage:
Only CNN attempted continuous coverage yesterday, and I’m grateful that they tried. Yet that coverage was so generally devoid of Sikh voices that it just reminded me how ill-equipped the media are. The “expert” they turned to most often was the sincere but inadequate Eric Marrapodi of CNN’s Belief Blog. He kept saying that Sikhs were not Muslims, but were often mistaken for Muslims and “unfairly targeted.” The first time he said it, I thought, wow, that’s unfortunate phrasing and he’ll stop using it after he realizes or someone points out the implication that Muslims can be “fairly” targeted. But no one ever got a clue. Islamaphobia was never mentioned, much less condemned for the ignorance and violence that it spreads.
Two days later, Foreign Policy carried this piece of media criticism by Rozina Ali. She isn’t too impressed with CNN’s coverage either, and once you read the transcription of an exchange between an interviewee and news anchor Don Lemon you won’t be, either. There were those who didn’t know that Sikhs come from India, not Italy, and others who confused them with Hindus and Muslims. One Fox News broadcaster even asked if there had been any previous instances of “anti-Semitism” against Sikhs in the past. But the wrongheadedness that drove it all was not simple ignorance but the belief that Sikhs were somehow unfairly targeted because their beards and turbans made them look like Muslims. “In other words,” Ali writes sarcastically, “Sikhs were an unfortunate casualty in the war on terrorism — ‘unfairly’ mistaken for a group expected to be involved in the violence.” (Unlike the Joplin, Missouri mosque, which was set on fire the day after the gurudwara shooting — for the second time this month. There was no mistaking the mosque for anything other than a place of worship for Muslims. The New York Times quotes Iranian-American writer Reza Aslan: “If it were a church or a synagogue that had been burned down twice, we’d be shocked by it. The narrative about the mosque burning has a sense of expectation to it.”)
To rub salt in the wound, instead of treating the shooting as “an act of terrorism,” which is how the local police department described it, several news outlets initially spent hours questioning this label. Why? Because terrorism can only be perpetrated by brown people?
2. Tim Wise dealt with this question eloquently in an AlterNet piece that was written in 2001 but could as easily have been written this past week (h/t to Sen for linking to it in her article). Writing after the senseless killing by a high school freshman in Santee, California, Wise says that these shootings always seem to happen in “normal” suburban communities where everyone is flabbergasted that such violence could occur in their neighborhood.
I said this after Columbine and no one listened so I’ll say it again: white people live in an utter state of self-delusion. We think danger is black, brown and poor, and if we can just move far enough away from “those people” in the cities we’ll be safe. If we can just find an “all-American” town, life will be better, because “things like this just don’t happen here.”
Well bullshit on that.
Bullshit on that indeed. The Santana High School shooting was in Santee, about 10 miles away from San Diego, which a casual Google search reveals is 87 percent white. The Columbine High School massacre, in 1999, which took the lives of 12 students and one teacher, also occurred in a town that was (or at least is today) predominantly white, too. Aurora, Colorado, where the Batman theater shooting occurred just a few short weeks before the gurudwara killings, has a mixed population: the town is is 47 percent white, 29 percent Hispanic, and 15 percent black, while Oak Creek, Wisconsin, the site of the latest massacre, is more than 90 percent white.
The shock is compounded when the killer is white, too. Jared Lougher, who killed 6 and injured 13 in last year’s Tucson, Arizona shooting is white. As is James Holmes, who went on the Aurora theater shooting spree. The boys at Columbine High School, as was the student in Santee. Seung-Hui Cho, the 2007 Virginia Tech shooter, is Asian-American. “And yet once again,” writes Wise, “we hear the FBI insist there is no “profile” of a school shooter. Come again? White boy after white boy after white boy, with very few exceptions to that rule (and none in the mass shooting category), decides to use their classmates for target practice, and yet there is no profile? Imagine if all these killers had been black: would we still hesitate to put a racial face on the perpetrators? Doubtful.”
Town after town, mayor after mayor, expresses their utter disbelief that such a thing could happen in their backyards because they all believe that this kind of societal dysfunction only happens somewhere else, to people in communities that don’t look like theirs. And we may have a black president in the White House, but our racial prejudices are very much with us today. I urge you to read the full article.
In the Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf agrees. There hasn’t been the wall-to-wall media coverage of last Sunday’s shooting as there was after the one at the Colorado theater, and perhaps that’s a function of the American public’s inability to relate to the victims. It’s easier to picture one’s friends and relatives in a theater watching Batman at a midnight screening, but not so much at a Sikh temple praying on a Sunday morning.
Yes, part of it is the identity of the victims, but what about the identity of the terrorist?
Attacks like his are disconcerting to some white Americans for a seldom acknowledged reason. Since 9/11, many Americans have conflated terrorism with Muslims; and having done so, they’ve tolerated or supported counterterrorism policies safe in the presumption that people unlike them would bear their brunt. (If Mayor Bloomberg and the NYPD sent officers beyond the boundaries of New York City to secretly spy on evangelical Christian students or Israeli students or students who own handguns the national backlash would be swift, brutal, and decisive. The revelation of secret spying on Muslim American students was mostly defended or ignored.)
In the name of counterterrorism, many Americans have given their assent to indefinite detention, the criminalization of gifts to certain charities, the extrajudicial assassination of American citizens, and a sprawling, opaque homeland security bureaucracy; many have also advocated policies like torture or racial profiling that are not presently part of official anti-terror policy.
3. Juan Cole, of the essential website Informed Comment, hits it on the nail with his pithy post, “Top Ten differences between White Terrorists and Others.”
Among them, that white terrorists are called “gunmen” while terrorists of every other color are terrorists; white terrorists are always troubled loners, whereas non-white terrorists are somehow representative of their larger communities; and the media will interview the weeping family of a white terrorist, while the families of non-white terrorists are almost never asked for a quote.
4. No discussion of these sorts of shootings can be complete without a discussion of the appallingly lax gun regulations in this country. The correlation is so obvious in my mind that I find it difficult to understand how folks, even those from communities affected by these massacres, continue to defend the easy access that everyone, even the mentally ill, even known criminals, can have to legal guns and 6000 rounds of ammunition (something that Dudley Brown, executive director of Rocky Mountain Gun Owners, called “running low”).
Eric Boehlert points out the inadequacy of media coverage on gun control on Media Matters, in which “the telling statistics regarding the massive toll gun violence takes in America each year (30,000 killed; 70,000 wounded) were once again virtually absent from the news coverage. So was the discussion of gun control.”
Mother Jones has created several telling graphs of the roughly 60 mass shootings in the past three decades — in which more than two-thirds of the 137 guns used by the shooters were purchased legally.
And finally, on a related note, Matt Kennard writes on the Investigative Fund blog about the attraction that neo-Nazis feel for the US military, which trains its recruits in the most sophisticated weaponry in the world. These white supremacists, like Page, return stateside to use their skills in a domestic “race war,” and between the easy access to weapons and military training, it is innocents who die in a hail of bullets.