Some random thoughts I’ve had as I’ve been reading news coverage of the memorial service following the shooting at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin. I hope it doesn’t seem crass of me to be in “analytical mode” so close to events–the impulse to analyze these kinds of things is why I do religious studies for a living. Surely it isn’t any more crass of me to analyze these media performances than it is for people to be staging them in the first place.
It is encouraging that members of the larger (non-Sikh) community felt impelled to participate in the memorial service, inasmuch as their participation sends the message, “We recognize you as part of this community.” At the same time–you knew another shoe was about to drop; here it is–it would be worth knowing to what extent, and in what concrete ways, the Sikhs were, in fact, recognized by the larger community prior to this tragedy, and to what extent, and in what concrete ways, their membership in the larger community will be recognized in the future. To put it brutally: Is showing up to the memorial a cheap facsimile of solidarity that lets people feel like they’re good pluralists?
Given the multivalent nature of these kinds of public performances, it would also be worth knowing what other messages people are sending when they show up, besides “We recognize you as part of this community” or “We’re appalled by white supremacy.” Other possibilities include, for example, “I’m a frustrated Wisconsin liberal who sees this tragedy as a damning symbol of what Tea-Party conservatism leads to.” Or, “I’m a white Republican governor who wants to show that my party are not the racists, and xenophobes, and Christian bigots they’re made out to be.”
Speaking at the service (sans head gear, N.B.), Eric Holder called the shooting “an act of terrorism, an act of hatred, a hate crime” and said that, as such, it was “anathema to the founding principles of our nation and to who we are as an American people.” Those platitudes bear interrogation. Political work of one kind or another is always being carried out whenever the power-words “terrorism” and “hate crime” show up; when the Attorney General uses them, that’s definitely worth probing.
At the moment, though, my hermeneutic of suspicion is attuned to this question: Why does a representative of the presidential administration feel a rhetorical imperative to denounce–and to denounce as un-American, specifically–an act whose immorality goes entirely without saying? In other words, for whose benefit is Holder delivering this statement of the obvious? Who needs to be persuaded that shooting people is un-American? Rephrase that: “that walking into a house of worship and randomly shooting people is un-American.” Shooting people per se is clearly not un-American: supporting our troops while they do precisely that is a patriotic duty. And maybe that fact is part of why Holder feels the rhetorical imperative to say what he did? “Hey, world–including especially all you Muslims out there: This isn’t what Americans are about, contrary to the impression you may have gotten in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
I get it: Holder wants to stigmatize white supremacy; he wants to stigmatize xenophobia; his comments may be intended to stigmatize Islamophobia more specifically. I’m most inclined to agree about the need to do that last. But I’m still left wondering: What exactly does Holder think the rhetorical situation is, that he feels he needs to explicitly denounce this shooting–and by extension, what does he then imagine that he achieves by denouncing the shooting? (Did people feel the need to denounce the random shooting of moviegoers in Aurora, Colorado?) I don’t take it as a given that Holder’s denunciation needed to be made, or that the denunciation actually does that much good, despite how much significance the news media are assigning to it in their reporting. If you disagree with my reading, I’d be interesting in hearing from you. I’m hoping, though, you have something more rigorous to say than impassioned platitudes about how religious intolerance is bad. I know that already, thank you. What I’m asking is: Why do you think repeating those platitudes actually does good?
UPDATE: One more thing I wanted to mention: One AP story paraphrases Holder as commending the Sikh community for having “responded without violence.” I haven’t been able to find Holder’s exact words yet, but my initial reaction is to find that a . . . curious statement. What is Holder imagining that the Sikh response might have been? Young bearded men rioting in the streets of Oak Creek, Wisconsin? Setting cars on fire? Chanting “Death to America”?