Honoring the Victims of the Sikh Temple Shooting in Oak Creek by Fighting Hate
Pardeep Kaleka and James L. Santelle
This week, Wisconsin pauses to remember an attack that rocked our state to its core a decade ago.
On August 5, 2012, the Sikh community of Oak Creek was attacked. A white supremacist gunman, embracing a delusional doctrine of violence against others, stormed the Wisconsin Sikh Temple, a local gurdwara, or place of worship, at the start of Sunday services. Six innocent lives were lost in the bloodshed, and a seventh died from his injuries just two years ago.
A responsive and heroic police officer took 14 bullets in a shootout with the assailant. Countless others have survived, but with severe injuries – physical and psychological – from the horrific experience.
Like all mass shootings, the violence had far-reaching effects on survivors and members of the wider community. Both of our lives have been changed in profound but very different ways.
After:Read Sentinel Journal coverage of the Sikh temple shooting in Oak Creek
One of us lost a father in the attack; his wife, children and grandchildren grew up with a hole in our lives where he should have been, and we miss him dearly, even 10 years later. Yet out of that grief came a chance to find a new purpose. A desire to understand and prevent heinous attacks of domestic terrorism led him to an unlikely partnership with a reformed white supremacist and a career building interfaith partnerships and promoting policy change.
The other, who is not a member of the Sikh community, was the United States Attorney for the Eastern District of Wisconsin at the time of the assault. Although the gunman was killed in his attack, there was still much work to be done in collaboration with the local community and officials at all levels of government. The experience of working so closely with the men and women of the Wisconsin Sikh Temple at the time led him to remain deeply involved with them over the ensuing decade, up to and including recent efforts to ensure Wisconsin children learn about Sikhism as they study other world religions in public school and in their own independent explorations at the Oak Creek Library and at home.
As this solemn anniversary approaches, we both come together to honor the lives of those who have been lost – beginning with a commitment to press for government action in response to the violent hatred that has not only devastated the Sikhs of Oak Creek, but also terrorized communities in Charleston, El Paso, Pittsburgh and too many other places across our country.
Congress has three immediate avenues to address this kind of heinous violence. First, members must reintroduce and then pass the Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act, which will require the government to assess and respond to threats from racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists, like the white supremacist who killed seven people in Oak Creek.
They should also pass the Non-Profit Security Grants Program Enhancement Act, as it provides funding through federal grants to gurdwaras and other places of worship to “harden up” against potential assaults.
Finally, they must pass the Justice for Victims of Hate Crimes Act, which will make a small but important change to the law to close a loophole that currently prevents the federal government from prosecuting hate acts large and small.
However, federal action is only the first step. The State of Wisconsin must also ensure that it pushes law enforcement to properly record, investigate, and prosecute hate crimes. We must continue to make our classrooms safer and more inclusive for young people of all faiths. And within our own homes and communities, we all have a responsibility to challenge prejudice when and where we hear it, before it metastasizes into deadly hatred.
In many ways, the Oak Creek attack was a warning of the increasingly public and violent role that white supremacy would play over the next decade – through mass shootings and other violence targeting groups marginalized and other members of our population.
But the Sikh community’s resilience, love and undying optimism also provide a roadmap for moving forward. By pledging to care for one another through community service, building bridges between communities, and civic action, we can make the world safer against rising tides of hate.
This is how we choose to commemorate this anniversary: to reflect and to remember, but then to commit to action for a better world.
Pardeep Kaleka is the Executive Director of the Greater Milwaukee Interfaith Conference, the founder of Serve2Unite, the author of “The Gifts of Our Wounds” and a clinician specializing in using a trauma-informed approach to treat survivors and perpetrators of aggression, abuse and acts of violence. Kaleka’s father, Satwant Singh Kaleka, was one of those who lost his life in the Oak Creek gurdwara shooting. James L. Santelle served as a civil litigator and criminal attorney for the United States Department of Justice for most of his career, including six and a half years as a United States Attorney for the Eastern District of Wisconsin.