On the weekend of April 16-18, Sikhs in Central Florida celebrated Vaisakhi, one of the most significant annual events on their religious calendar. But this year they “celebrated” with heavy hearts.
Sikhs throughout our nation were understandably devastated by the death of four members of their faith tradition in a late-night mass shooting on April 15 at a FedEx facility near the main airport at Indianapolis.
Although we all have sinking hearts at the news of yet another mass shooting, any common denominator that goes beyond our basic bond of shared humanity, tying us even closer to the victims, makes the horror all the more real.
And when within the victim group there are those with whom we identify intimately by race, religion or ethnicity — and even more so when our affinity group has been subjected to marginalization, mistreatment, hate crimes or terrorist attack — the fear and anxiety that come to the surface are palpable.
At this point, we don’t know if Sikhs were specifically targeted in Indianapolis, or if they were merely in a place where someone chose to go on a lethal rampage. In fact, we don’t know if any of the victims were specifically targeted because of some grudge.
Nor do we know if the FedEx facility was associated with a grievance in the mind of the shooter. He may have merely thought the facility would be a perfect venue to perpetrate the massacre he had in mind.
What we do know is this: When people with mental illness or otherwise twisted perspectives give in to their dastardly impulses, the ripples extend far, and the impact can’t be quantified.
And when people from groups that have been the victims of hate crimes or terrorism are even incidental victims of a crime, the resultant communal fear and anxiety that they feel is no different from what hate has already inflicted.
The passage of time hasn’t erased the collective pain the U.S. Sikh community experienced when one of their own — a gas station owner in Mesa, Ariz. —was murdered in a hate crime by a man who reportedly told friends the day of the 9-11 terrorist attacks that he was “going to go out and shoot some towel-heads.” Four days later, the hate-filled extremist followed through on his threat.
Balbir Singh Sodhi, who had a beard and wore a turban as part of his Sikh faith, seemed to fit the profile the revenge-seeker was looking for —even though no Sikh was involved in any way in the terrorist atrocities of 9-11.
Nor have American Sikhs recovered from the mass shooting that robbed them of six of their own when a hate-filled white supremacist stormed the Sikh gurdwara (temple) in Oak Creek, Wis., on Aug. 5, 2012.
And then there was the case in 2013 of the Sikh man who was shot by the occupants of a passing pickup in Port Orange. Fortunately, he survived, though he was seriously wounded.
Less than a year ago, Dr. Amit Pal Singh Saini, chairman of the Sikh Society of Central Florida, discovered that an obscene comment about Sikhs had been spray-painted on his car while parked at his home in Oviedo. It was done in broad daylight.
This is but a sampling of what Sikhs have gone through. It’s also an example of what many other minorities have experienced. Repeatedly.
Terrorism, hate crimes, mistreatment — all are manifestations of the same evil. They differ in scale but not in substance. What makes them so insidious is that they inflict inescapable pain and anxiety on the entire targeted group, not just the direct victims.
Admittedly, we as individuals are limited in what we can do to stop deliberate acts of hate. But we’re not limited in showing solidarity and offering encouragement when segments of our society that too often have been marginalized are forced to relive fears and anxieties they’d much prefer to be able to forget.
James Coffin is executive director of the Interfaith Council of Central Florida.