Paul Fanlund: In wake of Wisconsin temple murders, Muslims remain ‘enemy du jour’
It’s not exactly the national magazine exposure the state of Wisconsin is looking for.
“Massacre in Wisconsin,” screams the large headline on the cover of the winter edition of the “Intelligence Report,” a magazine published by the Southern Poverty Law Center, a prominent civil rights group fighting the influence of hate groups in America.
The “massacre” refers to murders by neo-Nazi Wade Michael Page, who, on a sunny Sunday morning in August, fatally shot six worshipers and injured four others at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin in Oak Creek near Milwaukee.
The temple shooting was among a list of mass killings President Obama referred to Friday in emotion-choked remarks after 20 children and six adults were gunned down at a Connecticut elementary school.
After Page wounded one Oak Creek police officer, another officer shot Page in the stomach, apparently prompting Page to put his 9mm handgun to his head and kill himself.
Last month, the FBI closed the case, concluding that Page acted alone after finding no evidence to suggest the attack was “directed or facilitated by any white supremacist group.” The FBI said it followed 200 investigative leads, interviewed 300 people and collected more than 200 pieces of evidence. “There is no evidence to suggest the attack was part of any ongoing threat to the Sikh community,” said the FBI.
That’s the conclusion of the law center, too, but they had tracked Page, a hard-core racist, for more than a decade. The center was first to identify him as a member of Hammerskin Nation — one of the nation’s most violent skinhead groups — and described him as a longtime star on the white power music scene.
The FBI determined that Page moved to Milwaukee in late 2011, apparently following a girlfriend, but they broke up weeks before the shooting.
Shortly after the shooting, I spoke with Mark Potok, one of the law center’s hate group experts. He said the Wisconsin shooting appeared to be random bad luck for the state.
“It’s really an aberration, what happened in Milwaukee,” he said then. “Certainly, that is not where I would have expected an attack like that to occur. And it’s so random, right? You just happen to have this little creep living up there. He wasn’t from there. He’s from Colorado, chasing after some woman, and winds up in your fair state.
“The Sikh temple is right down the street from where his girlfriend was a hairdresser, so it seems pretty clear that he spotted this temple, and in his rage at the world and his girlfriend for leaving him and all the rest of it, he decides to strike out against those people who looked like targets.… But I do see it as essentially an accident of history that it happened there.”
I spoke to Potok again last week and two themes emerged four months after the Milwaukee-area shooting, one being how little the carnage in Oak Creek has resonated long-term.
A month after the shooting, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., conducted a hearing in Washington, D.C., in which Sikh, South Asian and Muslim rights groups all complained of frequent vilification.
“The place was packed,” Potok says of the hearing. “It was a huge, huge hearing room. It was absolutely packed, absolutely more than 500 people there. And yet, there was zero (media) coverage of it. I thought it was really shocking because there was a lot of attention paid initially. I mean it was the biggest story in the country for a few days. But boy, did it fade fast.”
By tragic coincidence, going back more than a decade, a Sikh gas station owner was the first victim of post-9/11 rage, murdered on Sept. 15, 2011, by a man who bragged later that he wanted to “kill the ragheads.” Says Potok, “He ran a convenience store in Arizona and the guy who killed him absolutely thought he was Muslim.” (Sikhs, who make up the world’s fifth largest religion, are often mistaken for Muslims because Sikh males wear turbans.)
The second and larger theme from my interview last week was how hate crimes against Muslims, or those perceived to be Muslims, are increasing again after a long post-9/11 decline. “I think it’s clear, looking at the hate crime stats, that Muslims are the enemy du jour” right now, Potok says.
He and others link the increase to what they see as irresponsible rhetoric over the past two years.
In his “Hatewatch” blog last week, Potok reacted to new 2011 numbers on hate crimes, and noted how actions against Muslim targets increased in both 2010 and 2011 even as crimes against other groups stayed level or decreased.
Potok speculated there has been an “apparent diminution in anti-Latino and anti-immigrant propaganda as negative attention has focused on Muslims.” Hatred directed at gays and Jews has also apparently declined, he says. Even anti-black crime reports decreased slightly after peaking in 2008, when — now here’s a surprise — Barack Obama’s election seemed to fuel hatred aimed at blacks, according to the law center.
Yet “for the second year in a row there were remarkably high numbers for anti-Muslim hate crimes,” Potok says.
Looking back, there was almost no anti-Muslim hate crime before the 9/11 attacks. Afterward, predictably, it increased dramatically (by 16 times, he says).
Yet Potok says he and others were surprised how quickly anti-Muslim incidents declined in 2002 and beyond. He credits former President George W. Bush, who “at the time, did some very important things. He repeatedly made speeches in which he made the point that Muslims are not our enemy, Arabs are not our enemy. Our enemy is a very specific terrorist network called al-Qaida.
“He really worked hard and repeatedly to stave off violence and political fury at Muslims,” Potok says. “I think it mattered.”
But 2010 and 2011 saw more hate crimes against Muslims, including a 50 percent jump in 2010 alone. “What was that about?” Potok asks rhetorically. “If you think about it, there was no real objective reason for that rise.”
What did occur, he says, was the “this very ginned-up controversy around Park 51,” an Islamic community center in New York City that was falsely derided as a “Ground Zero mosque.” Driven by “professional Islamophobes,” Potok says opposition was partly led by Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker who likened Muslims to Nazis.
Potok also points to the debate around Shariah law, the Islamic code that guides Muslim beliefs and actions, but which U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., and others alleged has a true goal of world domination.
In 2011, Potok points to hearings on the Muslim threat to America called by U.S. Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee. “There was no semblance of fairness or real inquiry,” Potok says. “He was an Islamophobe before he pounded the gavel.”
Adds Potok: “We’re living through a time of incredible political polarization and a time in which political figures seem willing to say almost anything. I don’t recall a period like this in my life where politicians were so willing to say things that are completely outrageous, that are baseless and that are defamatory.”
So what to do? “I think it’s incumbent on good people to call out the liars, in particular the liars who have an amplified voice who are in the public square, whether they be politicians, pundits or preachers,” says Potok. “They’re demonizing an entire group of people with falsehoods. Demonization leads to violence.”
And, arguably, to outcomes like Oak Creek.