Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Domestic Terrorism Hits Oak Creek

Part 2 of my report on "A Wisconsin Tragedy"
Monday morning, the day after the horrific assault and mass murder of six Sikhs at their local gurdwara, local and federal law enforcement officials stood shoulder to shoulder at the front of the makeshift press room, normally the Oak Creek municipal court.  Standing at the podium was Teresa Carlson, the FBI Special Agent In-Charge, who headed the murder investigation.
Carlson’s jaw moved but the only noises emanating from her mouth were unintelligible mutterings.  A repeated “Uhm…” was her favorite response to the reporters who challenged her to describe the crime.  
“Was this an act of domestic terrorism?”
Sikh leaders leaned forward in their chairs at the front of the room.
The reporters shouted. “Yesterday you said it was domestic terrorism.”
“Uh,” the Special Agent replied.
“Was it a hate crime?”
Carlson summoned her inner bureaucrat.  “Uhm… I don’t want to get into whether it was a hate crime or domestic terrorism.”
The reporters were relentless. “What is the definition of domestic terrorism?”
She appeared to search her mind as if she had been asked the question by an FBI instructor during academy training.  She obviously was proficient at definitions as she summoned and delivered the answer without hesitation.
“The use of force or violence for social or political gain.”
Having succeeded in delivering a complete sentence, the FBI agent leading the investigation disappeared into the collegial embrace of her fellow law enforcement officials.  
I turned to the Washington Correspondent for “the guardian” with whom I had compared notes prior to the conference.  We had discussed that the Southern Poverty Law Center had been tracking the shooter for over a decade due to his involvement in white supremacy movements and participation in neo-Nazi music acts.
The English reporter and I agreed that the murderer was probably not a disturbed individual acting on the direction of his neighbor’s dog. 
The United States Attorney for the Eastern District of Wisconsin, James Santell, stepped to the podium and attempted to rescue his federal law enforcement partner.
For the sake of brevity – not Santell’s strength, I will distill his message to the pertinent quote. “We will focus on the specifics of the event today.”
What kind of message did the US government communicate to the Sikhs, whose congregation’s President and five members were murdered by a known white supremacist, when they backed away from their description of this “event” as domestic terrorism?
What kind of message does it send to all Americans, regardless of religion or race, when the government denies that a mass murder of a minority population, a group which practices a religion which the vast majority of Americans could not begin to describe, is not an act of terrorism?
Especially when the heinous act was committed in this group’s house of worship.   
I looked at the row of Sikh members adjacent to me, many with red-rimmed eyes.  The pleading voice and words of one man from their community, whom I had met at the Milwaukee Cathedral Square vigil the night before, echoed in my head.
“This needs to stop. This needs to stop. This needs to stop.”
Why was the US government backing away from its previous statement that this crime was an act of domestic terrorism?
I pursued this question with Santell after the conference concluded.  The US Attorney reiterated that he would “look at the evidence and build a case before he labeled it.”
But how could the Southern Poverty Law Center have information going back ten years on the shooter, and the federal government, according to FBI Special Agent Carlson, have nothing in their files on him?
Santell said, “Numerous non-governmental groups have information on individuals who pose potential threats - in these groups’ opinions.”  And he said, “This information may not be available to federal agencies.”
How could information on white supremacists be unavailable to the FBI in an era in which The Patriot Act gives the federal government essentially unlimited power to look and listen to anyone, anywhere, and anytime?
Santell conjectured that the feds might have raw data on the shooter, and that perhaps the data had not been analyzed, or that it had been, but perhaps it had been "deemed not actionable.”
Let’s suppose that the federal government did miss this neo-Nazi in the American haystack of white supremacists.  Why was the US Department of Justice cautious today in labeling the crime against the Sikhs an act of domestic terrorism?  
I told Santell that it appeared to more than a few observers that the US government was cautious about applying the terrorism label because it had been a white citizen who had murdered people of color.
The US Attorney nodded his head but did not take the proffered bait. I would be remiss however if I did not state that this Reagan-era appointee had made appropriately inclusive comments in his earlier opening remarks.
He had stated to the Sikhs that “we share in your great sorrow.” He had also stated that “diversity in color, in creed, in religion, in belief” was a part of America.  
But the US Attorney’s opening remarks struck me like the eulogists praise-filled words for a reviled politician.  Everyone knows the speaker is lying from the moment he opens his mouth – but everyone plays along with the charade and smiles politely, focusing their thoughts on the booze-filled wake to follow. 

US Attorney Santell

But I was in no hurry to get anywhere - I didn’t have a noon TV spot to fix my hair for, or an expense account lunch to attend - so I didn’t just record the lawyer’s answers and move on. 
He grinned at me. “You get it,” he said. 
I’m not sure why he thought that I “get it” but he carried on. 
“We can’t tell people around here, in the suburbs, that they have terrorists. They hear terrorist and they think they have Al Queda.”
I was very concerned, not only because Wisconsin’s representative for the US Attorney General thought that I got it, but more importantly, that he believed the American public couldn’t understand that an angry Pillsbury dough boy with a goatee, a semi-automatic weapon, and a love of Adolf Hitler was a terrorist.
Does this man, does this US government, believe that the American people can’t understand that terrorism can be and is homegrown? Or do they prefer to stick to the know-nothing model which tells us that only Muslims are terrorists? 
Heaven, or more appropriately Wall Street, forbid that American citizens are presented with the truth.
The truth is: homegrown hatred kills – and it kills for social and political gain.
If you don’t believe me – ask a Sikh.

Monday, August 6, 2012

A Wisconsin Tragedy

The man in the pristine white tunic and turban stood outside the Oak Creek Police department, a Frank Lloyd Wright-influenced building atop a small hill on Milwaukee County’s south side.  It was little more than twenty-four hours after the horrific assault on his gurdwara, the Oak Creek house of worship of his Sikh faith.

In those twenty-six preceding hours he had lost his beloved uncle, Satwant Singh Kaleka, the President of the Sikh temple and motivating force behind its construction, and five other members of his close knit community, all who were considered family, regardless of blood ties. 
The pain and suffering that this man had endured during and after the attack on his sanctuary is beyond comprehension.  How can anyone who has not suffered a like loss understand the confusion in the aftermath of a shooting, the first moment when one learns of death - and the unexpected mourning of family and friends who moments before where preparing for worship in a sanctuary – a place of safety.  
Instead they found themselves evacuated by police tactical units to a bowling alley across the street.
And then a short night before he was summoned to countless rounds of interviews on the morning news shows, where he explained his faith, bared his emotions, and summoned hope for the end of violence.
Then back to his family and community for a brief respite from the ceaseless media monster that now waited at the Oak Creek police department.  By the time that Kanwardep Singh Kaleka entered the Oak Creek courtroom that served as the multi-jurisdictional law enforcement press room, two-hundred plus media - local, national, and global, awaited him and his fellow Sikh leaders.
Sixty minutes after the press conference that left the assembled media with numerous unanswered questions, this man could be found outside, four reporters around him in a half-moon formation.  He was as tranquil as possible after one hour’s worth of interviews, most likely answering the same questions repeatedly.
He had every reason to express anger and to discuss ways for his community to isolate itself in fear from a society that that had expressed its diseased nature in the most violent way possible – mass murder.
But he did not choose fear. I will not say that he did not struggle with his moral choices. He made the briefest of an ill-tempered remark about the shooter, the man who killed his uncle.  
It was but a word, barely noticeable except that everything he said prior, and after, was said with the spirit of compassion and peace. And he humbled himself for his remark, graciously and magnanimously expressing how the Sikh community would persevere to be a faith community that was open to the entire community, regardless of creed, class, or other distinctions.
At this point in the interview I began to recede from the circus of reporters around him. Perhaps it was his message of family that spurred me to text my brother, to whom I had not spoken since an ill-advised political conversation during the recall election, to ask if he was available for lunch.
As my brother and I bounced messages back and forth, Mr. Kaleka was asked to do evening news shows - CNN for the second or third time today, and one other program.  He said if they could find someone else it would be great, due to the previous nine television interviews that he had done that morning, but if they needed him, he would join them.
The man was obviously tired in ways that I could not fathom.  And then two more reporters stepped in front of him. As they jumped into their questions, he smiled, extended his hand, and said, “Let’s introduce ourselves so that we know each other.”
The reporters smiled and took his hand.  I unashamedly listened while I exchanged text messages with my sibling.
This re-energized man proceeded to talk about his uncle, his family, and his community - not just the Sikh community, but the entire community.  He spoke with a compassion for humanity that I have only heard once before from a person who was in the same room as me, another faith leader, albeit one who was awarded a Nobel Peace prize.
I cannot even begin to capture what this man said today - I am entirely incapable.  
It was a message about reaching out and helping our human family.  It was a message of love and hope, and the divine necessity to do what we know in our hearts is the right thing to do.
This was the message from a man whose uncle and five “family” members had been murdered only the day before.
I could barely look up from my phone, not because I was entranced by its screen, but because I was embarrassed for my tears.  But how could I not look at this man who had the courage to open his heart after the wound that had been so viscously inflicted upon it?
I looked at Kanwardep Singh Kaleka.  He was smiling.  
The two reporters in front of him had tears falling down their cheeks. 

Overhead Light Brigade at Cathedral Square Vigil

Thursday, August 2, 2012

On DDT, Camels, and Voting Machines

Americans sure do like to sell each other stuff: chemicals, tobacca, explodin’ automobiles – it’s all part of them quarterly earnings and profits and such they're always on about on the news shows.
The things they’re tryin’ to sell us these days.  The government, the people we pay, they's tryin’ to tell us it’s okay to have some good ole boys in Nebraska count votes for us folks here in Wisconsin.  
Hell, I’m a boomer, and we seen some stupid shit, real stupid. 

I mean, I remember runnin’ outside on summer evenings through DDT that the City sprayed on us. Were they preparin’ us for ‘Nam?  No, they just didn’t like them nasty skeeters. And they killed ‘em good. 
Don’t mind that growth on your liver, son.
While the kids were suckin’ down chemicals on the street while playin’ “kick the can,” mom and dad was on the front porch inhalin’ Camel straights.  But it was okay back then; doctors said so.
Twenty years on, when mom got herself a job at the Piggly Wiggly, Ford Motor Company sold her and a few other folks some butt ugly cars that exploded when you tapped the rear bumper.
Problem was, when the damn thing blew, mom didn’t have the get up and go she did before takin’ up her pack-a-day habit. 
Now our government – the GAB - is sellin’ us that these Cornhuskers have these shiny, new machines – yeah I know it’s a computer, but they tol’ us it’s a special kind – that no one knows how to work but these nice people on John Galt Boulevard, in Omaha – trust them.
Who is John Galt?
I mean, look at that nice suit, and those shiny shoes on their salesman, our GAB man says.
So one of my good ol’ boys asks the pretty feller from John Galt Boulevard if he can show us under the hood a that computer, give us a look see at what my friend called “the source code” – the thing that makes that fine machine add our votes?
The feller says he don’t know much ‘bout computers.
Well that don’t sit well with the folks in the room, but the GAB man, a lawyer, which they all is, says, don’t worry your pretty little heads ‘bout no source code, you’re not allowed to see it by law - the computer corporation owns that code
GAB lawyer feller
Well then who owns the dang election, a feisty gal asks?  What the hell did my daddy get his self into over there in Normandy and around those parts if we can’t even own our own elections?  That’s just not right!
And the GAB man says, we’s done talkin’ but your welcome to play with the shiny machines.
Well I was so upset I got outta that boiler room they had us crowded into, lit up a Camel and high-tailed it in my 1973 Pinto.
And when I got home I looked on the Google machine and I see here that one of the owners of this fancy company is a former REPUBLICAN Senator - Chuck Hagel. 

You Democrats, independents, and such don’t mind having Republicans in charge of your ballots – do you?  Republicans ‘round these parts have proven themselves to be above partisan politics, haven’t they?  
Surely they wouldn’t allow for such petty things as profit or greed to get in the way of how those machines spit out the results?
Well, while you’re sittin’ around waiting for Gov’ner Walker to drop the next bomb… smoke ‘em if you got ‘em.