The Lessons of Wisconsin
He was our Anders Breivik.
Like the Norwegian who last year massacred 77 of his countrymen — most of them teenagers associated with the Labor Party he blamed for enabling Muslim immigration — Wade Michael Page capped a life of seething rage with a grotesque and bloody act of terrorism.
On Aug. 5, the longtime neo-Nazi and habitué of the white power music scene murdered six Sikhs in a Wisconsin temple. He badly wounded four others, including a police officer who sought to aid the victims. In the end, after being shot in the stomach, Page killed himself with a bullet to the head.
The American body count was a fraction of that suffered by the Norwegians. But, for a time at least, the attack — commonly believed to be aimed at Muslims by a man who didn’t understand that Sikhism is an entirely different religion — seemed to focus attention in this country squarely on anti-Muslim hate.
Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) held a congressional hearing on hate crimes the following month. Sikh, South Asian and Muslim rights organizations were widely cited in the media discussing the vilification their communities suffer daily. The entire country learned the details of Page and his terroristic attack.
But the introspection didn’t last long.
The day after the Wisconsin massacre, suspected arsonists in Missouri burned the Islamic Society of Joplin’s $600,000 mosque to the ground. In the following weeks, pig legs, seen as unclean in the Islamic faith, were left at the site of a planned mosque in Ontario, Calif.; air rifle shots were fired at a mosque packed with worshippers in Morton Grove, Ill.; vandals shot paintballs at a mosque in Oklahoma City; an acid bomb was thrown at an Islamic school in Lombard, Ill.; the home of a Muslim family in Panama City, Fla., was firebombed; and arsonists badly damaged one of the country’s largest mosques in Toledo, Ohio.
“We are clearly under attack,” Dr. Mahjabeen Islam, whose Toledo mosque sustained more than $1 million in damages, told the Intelligence Report.
Added Julia Shearson, Northern Ohio director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations: “We believe there’s a climate that’s been created in the political sphere and the far-right blogosphere that gives a green light to extremists to act out and commit hate crimes… . I don’t think we’ve seen this kind of intolerance toward religious minorities since before the civil rights movement.”
Shearson is right. The attacks on Muslims and perceived Muslims do not come out of thin air. And the vast majority had nothing to do with the murder of U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens on the 11th anniversary of 9/11 — only the Toledo arson came after the Libyan tragedy. It seems clear that the violence was mostly driven by the propaganda of fear-mongering Islamophobes.
That largely explains what happened in 2010, when FBI statistics indicate a 50% jump in anti-Muslim hate crimes. There was no major jihadist attack that year. And yet Islamophobia, on the decline since 2001, took off. What did happen in 2010 is that opportunistic politicians like former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, along with professional Muslim-bashers like Pam Geller, did their best to raise fear and hatred over an Islamic center planned for lower Manhattan. (Geller called it the “Ground Zero Mosque” and a “victory mosque” celebrating the 9/11 attacks.) The period also saw the start of sustained efforts to frighten Americans with the baseless idea that Muslims secretly plan to impose Shariah religious law on the nation.
Can we tamp down the current wave of religious intolerance? Is there anything that can be done to dial back the vitriol and political violence?
For starters, we can call out the propagandists — people like former Arkansas state representative Charlie Fuqua, a Republican who writes in a new book that there is “no solution to the Muslim problem short of expelling all followers of the religion in the United States,” and Geller, who held a September conference at which a speaker warned that “Muslims will breed like rats” but “can be wiped out.”
And we can also demand that the Department of Homeland Security, which gutted its non-Islamic domestic terrorism intelligence unit after receiving unjustified criticism from the political right in 2009, rebuild its capabilities. While the unit almost certainly could not have prevented the Sikh murders, better intelligence might well help law enforcement officials avoid similar future tragedies.
Durbin made that point clearly during his hearing, which received no national publicity at all outside of C-SPAN. “It was not the first tragedy based on hate and, sadly, it won’t be the last,” he said of Wisconsin. “But it should cause all of us to redouble our efforts to combat the threat of domestic terrorism.”