Readings

Naunihal Singh on the Oak Creek Massacre

By Benjamin Wittes
Tuesday, August 14, 2012, 8:39 AM

My old friend Naunihal Singh, a political science professor at Notre Dame University, has this very moving piece on The New Yorker's web page on the killings at the Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin:

The media has treated the shootings in Oak Creek very differently from those that happened just two weeks earlier in Aurora. Only one network sent an anchor to report live from Oak Creek, and none of the networks gave the murders in Wisconsin the kind of extensive coverage that the Colorado shootings received. The print media also quickly lost interest, with the story slipping from the front page of the New York Times after Tuesday. If you get all your news from “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report,” you would have had no idea that anything had even happened on August 5th at all.

The tragic events in the Milwaukee suburb were also treated differently by political élites, many fewer of whom issued statements on the matter. While both Presidential candidates at least made public comments, neither visited, nor did they suspend campaigning in the state even for one day, as they did in Colorado. In fact, both candidates were in the vicinity this weekend and failed to appear. Obama hugged his children a little tighter after Aurora, but his remarks after Oak Creek referred to Sikhs as members of the “broader American family,” like some distant relatives. Romney unsurprisingly gaffed, referring on Tuesday to “the people who lost their lives at that sheik temple.” Because the shooting happened in Paul Ryan’s district, the Romney campaign delayed announcement of its Vice-Presidential choice until after Ryan could attend the funerals for the victims, but he did not speak at the service and has said surprisingly little about the incident.

As a result, the massacre in Oak Creek is treated as a tragedy for Sikhs in America rather than a tragedy for all Americans. Unlike Aurora, which prompted nationwide mourning, Oak Creek has had such a limited impact that a number of people walking by the New York City vigil for the dead on Wednesday were confused, some never having heard of the killings in the first place.

Naunihal (who is, by the way, a Sikh) makes a valid and disturbing point here, one I suspect is correct. He is also commendably careful to note possible explanations for the disparate candidate and media treatment of the Oak Creek killings other than the psychological distance Sikhism occupies from the center of gravity of American consciousness: "The two incidents were obviously different in important ways: Holmes shot more people, did so at the opening of a blockbuster film, and was captured alive. There were also the Olympics."

There is, of course, another difference, one that may be more important than these: The Oak Creek shootings came second. Particularly when the first episode is more dramatic, the second will often tend to get less coverage and candidate attention. We have a tendency to grow inured, even to episodes of extreme violence. Think how shocking suicide bombings were when Hamas began using them in the 1990s. Think how humdrum they are now--as a media matter, anyway--when they happen in Iraq or Afghanistan.

That said, Naunihal has a point: If it had been a church, the candidates would have come.

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