Wisconsin Community Reels After Gunman Kills Six At Sikh Temple

This past Sunday, a gunman arrived at the gurdwara in the Milwaukee, WI suburb of Oak Creek, armed with a 9mm semiautomatic and murderous intent. In all, nine Sikh congregants and one non-Sikh police officer took bullets — and these six Sikhs died — before the perpetrator shot and killed himself in the parking lot. This is news everywhere, because it’s a heinous act committed by a man who committed his life to hatred: Wade Michael Page, a 40-year-old discharged US military soldier with a 9/11 tattoo who called himself a member of “Hammerskin Nation.”

And this is news on Stereogum because in the years after his military discharge in 1998, Page took his neo-Nazi viewpoint to the white power music scene, playing and singing in some of the “best known racist bands in the country,” according to Southern Poverty Law Center senior fellow Mark Potok. Bands with names like Definite Hate and End Apathy and Blue Eyed Devils. “The music that comes from these bands is incredibly violent and it talks about murdering Jews, black people, gay people and a whole host of other enemies,” said Potok, whose SPLC has had Page on a hatewatch-list since 2000. “It is music that could not be sold over the counter around the country.” Here is an interview Page gave about his bands, which he says are influenced by “80′s punk, metal, and oi.” Here are the album covers for Definite Hate and End Apathy, one of which features a drawing of a white arm punching a black man’s face.

Some are calling Page’s music “hardcore,” but as Slate points out, it’s important to remember hardcore’s roots are free of such hate — from scene progenitors Bad Brains and Black Flag to explicitly anti-neo-Nazi firebrands Dead Kennedys (e.g. please see “Nazi Punks Fuck Off“) — and that any such tag to Page’s bands is a perversion of the term. Better to call it hatecore. Or to call it vile.

It is three days after the shooting, and I haven’t thought about much else since. Maybe the incident is more localized in my gut because I am a Sikh American. Or maybe because I spent two summers clerking for a law firm in Milwaukee, for that time making the Oak Creek gurdwara the one closest to home. Or maybe it’s because this is Wisconsin’s fifth gun-related mass killing in seven years, and that is an unconscionable stat. Still, I didn’t know if posting about this on Stereogum made sense, or what a post here would even be about, until I realized something that hadn’t been touched upon elsewhere.

What happened on Sunday was not only a hate crime, but one with deeply illustrative, and bitterly ironic, aesthetic dimension.

The Sikh holy book, the Sri Guru Granth Sahib, is essentially a book of songs. It is a compilation of teachings by a series of ten Gurus. These Gurus were mystic songwriters. Each of their prayers (or banis) comes with a prescribed raga (a collection of notes, not unlike a mode, but with set melodic implications) and taal (a time signature but with a more complicated, cyclical component than Western bar measures). Services at a gurdwara are almost entirely comprised of kirtan, or devotional singing of shabads (verses from the SGGS) set to harmonium and tabla. Aspirants chant and meditate. While Sikhs explicitly believe that all religions are equally valid belief systems with a common goal and a common destination — making it one of the most inclusive religions imaginable — Sikhs’ specific practice is predicated upon the power of vibration and song: By singing these songs, alone or in the saad sangat (the congregation at a gurdwara), it is believed that one can commune with the vibratory essence underlying all noumena; that by meditating on these songs, you can shift your frequency, still your mind, transcend yourself, attain enlightenment. And in this state, one can live a good life, full of love and commitment to hard work, truth, service, prosperity, and greater peace.

After knowing that, how fatally ironic does it seem that this killing was committed by a hate-rock stalwart? That a man so committed to his putrid cause as to become a prominent figure in his music scene turned up at what was essentially a spiritual concert, to murder aspirants who used music to achieve a diametrically opposed end? Essentially, a lead singer from one genre came to murder the fans of another. From hate punk to kirtan. And by turning up to the gurdwara as early as he did, before things really got underway, Page killed the most devout members of the congregation: those preparing for the day’s services and those preparing the langar, the food that is offered freely to anyone, no matter cast or creed, who comes to a gurdwara in need of a meal. Even Page could have had langar, if he chose to feed his hunger over his hatred.

We don’t yet know Page’s specific motivations for pulling the trigger on Sunday — there is no manifesto, no explicit quote left behind — though the circumstantial evidence creates some strong inferences, and paints the portrait of a man whose vision was blinded by a fog of enmity. This is a man who had a 9/11 tattoo, so prominent that the shooting’s survivors made sure to mention it. Consequently, there’s been lots of discussion about the consistency with which Sikhs are confused with Muslims, and about the people who equate Muslims with terrorism. This is, of course, a sad state of affairs: Sikhism and Islam are different, equally great world religions, and terrorists that use dogma to justify their actions pervert their roots just as hate punks do to hardcore. But the explanation for this confusion often comes down to headdress and hair: orthodox Sikhs have unshorn hair, and males wear their manes up in turbans as an outward symbol of their faith in God. And the turban is a polarizing article — it immediately makes one “other.” It becomes a “lightning rod,” as Sikh activist Amardeep Singh wrote yesterday in NYT India, for bigots and merchants of fear.

This is not new, of course.

As a young man in the ’80s, my father, then a bearded and turbaned Sikh making his way slowly up the American corporate ladder, regularly found himself seated at long desks in board rooms surrounded by colleagues who “jokingly” called him a terrorist. As a child growing up in Queens and Long Island, I wore my unshorn hair up in a ball (called a jura) and was teased relentlessly, until the day I came home in tears. It was the first I’d complained, but the only time my mother needed to hear: she rushed me to the barber, and before the day was done, my brother and I had mullets. My father weathered the complaints from family in India over this, but ultimately he took the moment to lop off his locks, too. This was a move our family made toward assimilating, and being a more seamless stitch in the fabric of American society. But it didn’t end, because it is not that easy. Yesterday morning my brother and I talked about having “Terrorist!” yelled at us in the wake of 9/11. Turbans may be a lightning rod, but you can’t treat fear and hatred with a haircut. And a system that allows hatred to be so easily (and semiautomatically) weaponized is a system in disrepair.

This tragedy has become an unfortunate, but essential, teaching moment for who Sikhs really are, and what Sikhism really is. (If you really want to know, read Guru Arjan Dev’s great bani Sukhmani Sahib, which is literally the “Psalm Of Peace.” If only Page did.)

Here on Stereogum, let the lesson be one of aesthetics and music, of being discerning in what we listen to and what we prostelyze. The power of music on both sides of this equation, from hate punk to kirtan, is a reminder of the power of art, and that we are as responsible for the art we make as the art we champion as a community. It’s a reminder that we are doing something valuable by collecting here every day, like a family, to pore over and discuss and analyze and celebrate and criticize music, and the culture surrounding it. Because music is, fundamentally, transformative.

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Despite being a racist skinhead and on SPLC’s hatewatch list, Wade Michael Page was not on any FBI watch lists. He legally purchased his 9mm semiautomatic handgun on July 28th, picked it up two days later, and emptied one magazine’s worth of ammunition at the Oak Creek gurdwara within the week. This is the fifth gun-related mass killing in Wisconsin in seven years. This is the website of the Coalition To Stop Gun Violence, who have issued a statement.

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Please read these profiles of the murdered victims of Sunday’s shooting.

There is a a candlelight vigil tonight, organized by the Sikh Coalition, to show support for and solidarity with the victims, in NYC’s Union Square. It is from 8PM to 10PM on Union Square North (17th Street).

Here is a moving video interview of the family of slain congregation leader Satwant Singh Kaleka with Anderson Cooper.

Kaleka’s family has founded a support fund for the less fortunate victims of the attacks. You can contribute here: We Are Sikhs. Another fund has been set up here: Indie Go Go. (Thanks to Himanshu for providing these support links, and for caring so much.)

The thread is yours. I am here and happy to talk.

[Photo by Darren Hauck for Getty Images]

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Comments (70)
  1. This is a very helpful overview of the Sikh faith, insightful analysis of the shooting, and enlightening collection of memories. Thank you for sharing this. I appreciate your distinction between ‘hardcore’ music–which is a genre and arguably a lifestyle–and music that is created with the intention of spreading bigoted, hateful beliefs.

  2. Thank you, Amrit. I wish more people would discuss subjects like this in depth without lowering the situation to mindless fear-mongering.

  3. Beautiful perspective.

  4. I happened to be scanning the channels when the news started picking up the story, I was about to turn off the set when I realized what I was looking at.

    It is a sad state of affairs when an American citizen can feel such a sense of conviction to commit a heinous act of terrorism in his own country, yet for some reason is blind to that fact.

  5. Great, well thought out piece. I’ll be honest, it can be difficult discussing such a topic without furor (no matter what side you’re on).

  6. Really well done. I heard this morning that authorities do believe that this asshat thought he was killing Muslims but was too dumb to realize that he was actually killing Sikhs. I also heard this morning that the FBI DID have him on their watch list, but it doesn’t make any sense to me that they wouldn’t do anything when he purchased an automatic weapon. Either I heard some bad info or the first amendment kept the FBI from stepping in.

  7. My first thought when hearing the news was that he must have thought they were Muslim. As if racism isn’t already dumb enough..

  8. Wow, this was beautiful. I live in Milwaukee, so this struck pretty damn close to home, and it’s also left me having to listen to a large amount of idiotic perspectives from family and friends. This is easily the most well thought out opinion I’ve read/heard about the tragedy, and the way you got the music perspective of the whole thing is just great. Thank you.

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    • i’d say there’s potential for a -100 here. careful with those bad jokes, kids.

    • I saw a joke about the Batman shootings that James Holmes was a “hero” who actually intended to shoot up Katy Perry 3D and I just got pissed. good job not making that joke

      • I was just being honest, I read that line and that’s what popped into my head. I think it’s a really fine line between what’s appropriate and what isn’t. But I asked if there was something wrong with me and I got my answer. I guess wanting to crack jokes at inappropriate times is some sort of defense mechanism b/c I’m not able to process my feelings when something like this happens.

        • Yes, because whatever stupid fucking thought pops into your head must be articulated immediately and disseminated over the internet. Honesty, bro!

    • Too
      soon.

    • “I didn’t want to actually post that b/c this is a pretty serious subject”

      …but you did…

    • You, sir, are Sikh in the head.

    • I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with you. I can’t think of specific instances, but I’m sure that my brain has done the same thing. In fact, I’d say that the fact that you had hesitance in posting it, and then the honesty to actually mention it anyway, are positive signs. Don’t beat yourself up.

    • The funny part is, while this joke is pretty bad, you’re probably not going to receive nearly as much hate as this did. It’s safe to say your joke is more offensive, but apparently MCA is more off limits than the murders of 6 non famous people. Just thought I’d point this out because I think it’s interesting.

      • Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see

        • @ Jason, I’m not really beating myself up, although Umm and Alex Wood are kinda right in calling me out for “not” making the joke. I really was interested in seeing if anyone else thought the same thing, but part of me probably just couldn’t resist putting that joke out there too. I really think it’s ok to joke around about very serious subject matter, even soon after it. A lot of times jokes are really funny because they are inappropriate and the best humor often comes from really dark places. It is just tough to know how far is too far so it’s probably best for most of us to stay away.

          @gruff, once was forgivable but after doing it twice I’m pretty sure you are going to hell.

  10. I live in Milwaukee, so this struck really close to home, and it’s been bugging me for days. This is the most beautiful, well thought out perspective I’ve heard about the whole tragedy so far. Thank you.

  11. This is a helpful overview of the Sikh faith, an insightful analysis of the situation, and enlightening set of memories and resources. Thanks for posting.

    I especially appreciate your distinction between hardcore–a genre and arguably a lifestyle–and music created with the intent of spreading bigoted, hateful, and violent beliefs.

  12. As an outsider ( and foreigner and a Muslim), it seems to me there is less media coverage about this as compared to the Aurora incident. Or is it just me?

    My condolences to the families of the deceased. and thanks for the article Amrit.

    • It’s definately gotten less media coverage. If you are insinuating that the reason is that in this instance the victims were not white, that could be part of it. We all know when a little white kids gets killed it’s a much bigger deal than when a black kid gets killed. However other factors would be that the Aurora incident had more vicitms, a more sensational gunmen(dressed like the Joker, also taken alive), and it happened first. I think the fact that this was the second mass murder in such a short period of time desensitized people a little bit.

      • As somebody in the news:

        The Colorado shootings happened during July sweeps/ratings. That’s why they went all out on that story.

        At my local station in middle America we have ran a story on this shooting everyday. So it’s getting media coverage, and it would have gotten more had it been during a sweeps/ratings month.

        That’s fucked up media logic for you. And it’s true.

  13. I can’t wait to start hearing the media talking about “hate punk” like its a new thing and how we should be locking up all of our children.

  14. Andri, yeah, it kinda does feel like there’s less coverage.

    Amrit, I don’t have much to add, except to say thanks for writing this.

  15. Nice article, and +1 for using the word “noumena.”

    One correction: Wade Michael Page did not have a 9/11 tattoo as reported earlier. He did have a tattoo of a Celtic cross with the number “14″ imposed on top, and my guess is that in all the confusion and panic of the moment, it might have been confused as representing the twin towers or 9/11. The 14 refers to the 14 words in the white power slogan: “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.”

  16. Thank you for your willingness to share your own experiences, Amrit. It’s so important to think about this kind of hate in context. It doesn’t just exist as a madman killing free Americans who were practicing their faith, but also – and maybe to a lesser extent, but still – as kids ostracising a classmate for wearing a jura or a turban or a yarmulke or anything else. Or as people shouting “terrorist” at others in the months after 9/11.

    This attack itself was chilling, but reading about this guy’s connections to the hate music scene was disturbing in a much more subtle way. I think we’re all here because we understand and appreciate the power of music, and it is deeply disturbing to think about that power being used as a conduit for hate. The thought that kids experiencing feelings of rebellion are pulled into the white supremacist scene by the music is really unsettling, because we all know how music can hit you at your core and channel your emotions. It’s a scary thought that music like this man’s is out there using that to lead people into hate.

    I don’t know what I’m trying to say here, but I’m glad that there is a forum like this where we can discuss these things and have some healthy debate about music as a medium for positive change. Stereogummers have their disagreements and all, but hopefully always toward the end of exchanging ideas in a positive way.

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  18. And please, could anyone give me a reason why anyone should be at peace with all of humanity and everything around it??? Convince me please.

  19. Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see

  20. CNN fails for putting Hatebreed in a list of white power bands. They’re a shitty, shitty band, but not Nazis.

  21. Exceptionally written. God help us all.

  22. Thanks for this.
    I would argue that the profound lack of any sort of mental health care system in North America facilitates the rise of unadulterated stupidity to such dangerous heights.

    • True that.

      During the week following the Aurora shooting, NPR ran a lot of stories with topics related to mental illness. I thought it was the best possible response to the incident. Understanding and treating mental illnesses will prevent these shootings from happening more than any gun legislation..

    • Exactly. I feel like every time one of these shootings occur, there’s a story the following week about how such-and-such person was flagged as potentially having mental issues and the warning was somehow lost in the ether. There are probably numerous other issues with the mental health care system, but I’d like to think proper communication could be low-hanging fruit.

      Also, and I mean absolutely no disrespect by this, but it kind of freaked me out seeing such an eloquently written statement from you, DT. =)

      • You are all correct, however the problem is you can’t look at someone and know that they are mentally ill. Making it illegal to buy assault rifles is much more feasible than properly diagnosing everyone with some sort of mental illness.

        • But then how are we supposed to shoot deer? And protect ourselves from the evil federal government? While shooting the deer!

        • I don’t know. I’m not sure making assault rifles illegal would stop crazy people from getting their hands on assault rifles. The type of person who wants to open fire on innocent people is not one to really take the law into consideration. While I agree making firearms more difficult to acquire, legally or illegally, would be a start, I think the approach needs to look at more systemic causes of the special kind of crazy our country seems to keep producing.

          We can start by sewing neo-Nazis’ hands to their feet.

          • For sure. I don’t think diagnosis has that much to do with it as much as addressing a mental health issue when it occurs. Most people have nowhere to go even when they do cry out for help. Or, when they cry out for help the buck is passed along because there are no real resources to address. This seems like it could (possibly) be one of the many many factors that was relevant in the Aurora tragedy.

            However, what I’m talking about is more fundamental then simply diagnosing a mental illness. There’s a major problem globally where mental illness is something that isn’t discussed or is avoided – I think there’s a major problem when people degenerate to a state mentally where they form hate punk bands with pencil crayon album covers. The initial reaction is to call these people assholes (which…. well yeah they are) but when someone is THIS hate filled AND stupid there is clearly an issue with their mental functioning/capacity. We wouldn’t conceptualize hate as a diagnosable mental illness, but it does constitute a problem which negatively impacts the individual and his/her environment and is the result of faulty patterns of thinking. So, in some ways, hate really is a mental health issue. That’s kind of what I meant. I’m having a hard time putting it into words but I think this is the gist. I would argue a hate punk pencil crayon band is an unintentional cry for help, the same way a small bump on your testicles is – you may not have caused it, and you may not even notice it, but it’s something that needs professional consultation.

            And also, poop.

            -d.

          • Ol’ boy who shot up batman was trying to get help. I’d argue that if he couldn’t have gone online and legally bought that gun the Aurora shooting would have never happened(obviously I don’t know this for sure). With the fucknut in Milwaukee, I’d say that he maybe would have pursued a gun illegally if he couldn’t acquire one legally. I really think getting rid assault rifles, crazy fucking armor piercing bullets, XL clips, or whatever else, would solve a lot of our problems with these shootings.

            I don’t mean for the above to take anything away from all the great points you are all making about metal health. I thought about that with the whole Sandusky thing. As pissed off as I was at him and as much as I wanted the gov-ment to chop his dick off, he was clearly a very sick individual who maybe couldn’t help himself. You could probably argue that anyone who commits any (violent)crime is missing something in their head that tells them not to do what they are doing.

          • true say – true say all around

            our love grows stronger, like an erect d.

            d.

          • That boner’s repeated and unexpected appearances are making it risky for me to come on here at work haha.

          • or is it “making it hard for you to cum on here” at work?

            teeeehehehehehehehehe :D :D :D :D :D :D :D :D !!!!!

      • hey thanks – this is my outlet for poop-related thoughts on life and music if we’re talking about shabizzy or lana del kisskiss, but sometimes, you’ve got to get serious. this is serious and i feel like i’ve gotta toot the ol’ mental health horn becuz it is a passion of the ol’ papa titty and it seems like a reasonable contribution.

        TC (take care),
        DT.

  23. Incredible piece, Amrit.

  24. I suppose the one upside to all of this is that it produces insightful commentary. Well done Amrit, and barring a few outliers (I’m looking at you Danny Diaz) I am very impressed with how Gum handled the resulting discussion. Props are being appropriately distributed as we speak.

  25. Thank you guys, for the civil discussion and thoughts. Given mainstream media’s anemic coverage, it’s been nice to see this forum shed some light.

    It’s six days since the killings, and cable news has left the story behind (just this morning, members of the Sikh Coalition were bumped bumped by MSNBC in favor of nonstop Paul Ryan reportage). A week in the headlines doesn’t seem that much to ask. So we just put this back in our homepage’s Lead Story module.

    Thanks for reading.

  26. its really a shame how people come on here and just flame up the message boards after a tragedy like this one….. really stupid. anyways i did find it a rather enlightening read. thanks amrit

  27. Powerful article. I’m really, truly touched and inspired.

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