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.