Reading the initial reports of the mass shooting in Wisconsin that claimed six Sikh worshipers, I’m reminded of a little-known event from more than a decade ago. Taken together, the two events say a lot about where we are, and who we aspire to be.
It was September 15, 2001. The terrorist attacks that took down the Twin Towers and damaged the Pentagon had just occurred, and everyone felt angry, frightened, and shell-shocked. For Frank Roque, however, mere anger or sadness was an insufficient response; he wanted blood for blood.
Roque, an aircraft mechanic from Mesa, Arizona, spoke ceaselessly in the days after the attacks about “killing some towel-heads” or “slitting some Iranian throats.” On September 15, he spent the afternoon getting drunk at a local bar and openly threatening to “kill Middle Eastern people.”
After getting kicked out of the bar, Roque drove to a local Chevron station owned by a Sikh-American named Balbir Singh Sodhi and fired five bullets from a .38 handgun through the open window of his truck, killing Singh instantly. Later, when police arrested him at his home, Roque offered a simple explanation for his actions: “I’m a damn American,” he said proudly.
Although detailed information about yesterday’s assailant in the Sikh temple has not been released, what has been confirmed is that the gunman was a 40-year-old white man. And I worry that if he hadn’t been killed at the scene, his rationale would have sounded eerily similar to the addled, ignorant patriotism of Frank Roque.
The notion that anyone could think murdering fellow citizens reflects American values tells us a lot about the ways we have failed as a nation to ensure that all people understand, at its core, what it means to uphold those values.
To be sure, extremists like Frank Roque are rare, and there are plenty among us who can distinguish not only between extraordinary terrorists and ordinary Muslims, but also between Islam and Sikhism. And yet it is also true that too many of us believe that some people are more American than others, allowing institutions like a Sikh Temple in Wisconsin to become emblematic of the false notion that there are enemies in our midst.
Since its founding, the United States has been known as the world’s first new nation because it is the only place in human history where one’s standing in the civic order is not determined by bloodlines or kinship, but by a fundamental allegiance to principles and ideals. Anyone can be an American, at anytime, and equally so. We can practice any religion, proselytize any worldview, and promote any cause. And in a way the only guidance we have to do so and not rip each other to threads in the process comes from the 45 words of the First Amendment:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
The Frank Roques among us threaten that social compact by their willingness to threaten the safety and security of their fellow citizens. But the rest of us also play a part when we refuse to heed the implicit instructions woven throughout the First Amendment’s five freedoms – not the right to say whatever we want, but the responsibility to guard the rights of others, especially those with whom we most deeply disagree.
In a better, more hopeful version of who we are, the first people to come to the defense of a brown Sikh minority in Wisconsin will be their white Christian neighbors. The first thing children will learn in school is how to balance individual rights and civic responsibilities. And the last people to lay claim to being American will be ignorant, violent extremists like Frank Roque.
(This article also appeared in the Huffington Post.)