Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Wisconsin Shootings: Sympathy Is Not Enough

By Jalees Rehman, MD
Originally posted 8/7/12 at the Huffington Post

Humans have an astonishing capacity for empathy and love, but they also have a dreadful capacity for committing vicious acts and inflicting pain on fellow human beings. The horrific shooting rampage at a Sikh Gurdwara in Wisconsin is a sad reminder of the latter. The shooter Wade Michael Page murdered six members of the Sikh community who had gathered at the Gurdwara for worship services and he then also ambushed and shot a policeman who arrived on the scene to help the victims. Since Page himself was killed during the shoot-out with the police, we may never know all the details regarding his motive for his heinous acts. However, the fact that he was associated with white supremacist groups and wore tattoos that point to a far right or neo-Nazi background strongly suggest that Page was primarily motivated by hatred. It is not yet clear, whether his hatred was directed against Sikhs or Indians or whether he wanted to kill Muslims and mistook Sikhs for Muslims out of ignorance. Even though multiple news media outlets point out the possible accidental conflation of Sikhs and Muslims, this should not distract from the fact that in either case, the underlying motive would be a hatred of "the other." Sikhs do not try to portray themselves as not being Muslim and they have actually shown a remarkable amount of solidarity with Muslims when Muslims have been the target of prejudice and profiling.

These murders are reminiscent of two other recent hate crimes: The murder of more than 70 people in July of 2011 in Norway perpetrated by Anders Breivik and the more recent Toulouse killings committed by Mohammed Merah in March of 2012. Breivik distributed a manifesto via the internet prior to his killing spree, which involved the murder of numerous teenagers attending a youth camp of the social democratic party. This document gives a detailed account of his motives: Hatred directed towards liberals, social democrats and socialists, contempt for feminists, environmentalists and multi-culturalists and a desire to purge Europe of Muslims. Mohammed Merah was a French Muslim of Algerian descent and killed off-duty French soldiers and then murdered a Rabbi and Jewish school-children while they were attending school. He did not compile a manifesto like Breivik did, but based on what he told police negotiators prior to his death, Merah claimed that he committed the murders to avenge deaths of Palestinian children killed by Israeli forces, as a punishment for France's military involvement in Afghanistan and the face veil ban.

In the past, the expression "terrorism" has been used to describe acts committed by organized groups who kill civilians and arouse fear in the general population as a means to further a political or religious agenda of their group. Breivik, Merah and Page may represent a new form of terrorism. They may have had some limited interactions other organizations or larger groups, but when it came to planning and carrying out their murders, they acted as individuals, motivated by their individual hatred and contempt for selected groups of fellow humans because of their faith, ethnicity or political views.

The lack of empathy exhibited by these killers seems inconceivable and after all of these horrific crimes, there was a broad outpouring of sympathy from people all over the world. These killers chose vulnerable, innocent members of society, such as school-children, worshipers or teenagers and we could all relate to the pain of their loved ones. Breivik calmly fired at crowds of teenagers at the youth camp in Ut√łya. Merah grabbed a young 8-year old Jewish girl by the hair before shooting her. Page shot at peaceful worshipers and ambushed an officer who tried to help victims. 

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