By Sid Sharma @SidBSharma
I was in high school during the frenzied years of “us versus them” that followed the horrors of 9/11. Our principal, a Vietnam War veteran, took to the loudspeaker on 9/12 to announce that no acts of bigotry would be tolerated on school grounds. Perhaps my naiveté led me to dismiss those concerns. We were after all, children of the new millennium and fully capable of respecting our shared human dignity.
Then it slowly started changing. My Hindu mother started getting looks at the laundromat so my father had to accompany her more often. A Muslim girl’s headscarf was ripped off by this thuggish brute in chemistry lab. (And his actions attracted applause.) And finally, Sikh men were being harassed and murdered in cold blood.
“Are people that stupid?” I remember asking my jaded father in a way that only a righteously indignant teenager could. “Sikhs have nothing to do with the men that flew the planes into the towers!”
My father wore the painful cynicism of a jaded former true believer. “It doesn’t matter.” He said no more on the matter, and I thought he was a coward, quite frankly.
Why do Sikhs have to suffer so much violence? Why target them? Is it because their turban makes them easily identifiable as the “other” and a target just because of their difference? What bothers me so much is the sheer illiteracy that manifests itself when some racist goon attacks a Sikh. This ethnic group has nothing whatsoever to do with terrorist acts in the United States. Reason, it is said, turns to ash in the hands of a bigot.
The shooting at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin in 2012 was particularly jarring since I had come to believe that we had learned something in the 10 years after 9/11. What was going through Michael Wade Page’s warped, pathetic mind as he pulled the trigger is beyond me.
And now, there is the beating of Inderjit Singh Mukker, a 53-year-old Sikh man, at the hands of a 17-year-old. This reportedly happened as Mukker was doing something as banal as driving to the grocery store. The shouts and taunts were frightfully familiar. “Terrorist!” “Bin Laden!” and of course the “Go back to your country!” These are undoubtedly the greatest hits of the racist collection.
Part of me wants to believe that a teenager doesn’t know any better or there are other factors at play. This certainly seems to be the local government’s position as it isn’t pursuing hate crime charges. I know deep in my heart that this is simply excuse making. What else can one expect from a society that is politically and geographically illiterate? To see any person get cut down in such a cowardly fashion is sickening to my sense of honor. This speaks volumes about the disease that is ignorance and wounds the decency American national character. To say nothing of our political class that either implicitly fans these flames of hate or is rudderless and adrift in an ocean of hashtags and trigger warnings to fight actual injustice.
I was not a Muslim. Nor am I Sikh. But 9/11 made me a Muslim. And it made me Sikh. It brought home to me that what I was didn’t matter as much as what people thought I was. I no longer have the luxury of internecine feuds against other brown people.
Most of all, I am sickened that we have to live with such tragedy. I finally get my father’s resignation. All a defeated man can do is lament in silent impotence. I can only hope that with each passing year there will be fewer people who have to hate his brother or sister to feel alive.