The first retaliatory killing in the United States after 9/11 was of a Sikh. That is not an insignificant fact in light of the tragic shooting of six Sikh worshippers at a temple in Wisconsin on Sunday.
In 2001, Balbir Singh Sodhi was killed while pumping gas at the station he owned in Mesa, Ariz., apparently because the shooter mistook him for a Muslim. Anti-Muslim and anti-Arab tensions ran high after those terrorist attacks. But the retaliatory killing was more about attacking religious freedom with blind ignorance than it was about seeking any sort of revenge for what happened in New York City, Washington and Pennsylvania.
Sikhs believe in equality, freedom of religion, inclusiveness and in doing good works. Somewhere between 500,000 and 700,000 Sikh worshippers reside in the United States. But these facts are not known to many people. Sikh men are distinguishable by their turbans and beards, an outward appearance that unfortunately makes them susceptible to bigoted stereotypes and abuses from people who are ignorant and suspicious of anything they perceive as different or strange.
This senseless attack on peaceful worshippers was an attack on believers everywhere. It was an assault on a bedrock freedom enshrined in our Constitution's First Amendment and ought to reawaken the need to shore up and protect what too many take for granted. The freedom of religious exercise, and from government interference with it, is a key to the nation's strength and peaceful progress.
We agree with Faheem Younus, an adjunct instructor of religion and history at the community colleges of Baltimore County. He wrote in the Baltimore Sun that the attacks "posed a question to the core American values: Do we stand up for the safety of our religious minorities with the same vigor as we do for the mainstream population?"
The best answer to that is Lt. Brian Murphy, the 51-year-old police officer who was shot eight or nine times during the assault and was reported to be in critical condition Monday. Younus writes about how police stood by passively in Pakistan two years ago as gunmen opened fire on Ahmadiyya Muslim worshippers. Critics blamed the Ahmadiyya for provoking the attacks by simply practicing their faith, and the worshippers' side of the story was not reported in the media there.
By contrast, outside Milwaukee police did not stop to question the Sikh's beliefs, their turbans or their beards before responding. Lt. Murphy may not have had the Constitution in mind as he risked his life, but his character and training encompassed the American ideals of freedom and of the need to be able to worship freely without fear of attack. That is a powerful example for the rest of us.
The world may never fully understand what motivated Wade Michael Page to open fire inside the Sikh temple near Milwaukee. Police killed him while responding to the attacks. He appears to have been motivated by racial hatred, given his association with white supremacists. But his decision to bring violence to a place of worship was a hate crime that assaulted Americans everywhere. The best response is for the nation to rally around Sikhs to offer the type of support and service that typifies their treatment of others.