POINT TO PONDER
I guess when your heart gets broken you sort of start to see cracks in everything. I'm convinced that tragedy wants to harden us and our mission is never to let it.
*The following story line was edited from a FR written in 2010 titled "Through the Looking Glass." That reflection is relevant today following the shooting at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin earlier this week.*
STORYLINE - by Rajiv Shah
On September 11th, 2001, Balbir Singh Sodhi was glued to his T.V. as two American Airliners collided with the World Trade Center. He watched the twin towers fall, an uneasiness coming over him, as the flaming wreckage replayed over and over on his screen. Balbir Singh Sodhi had recently moved to his Mesa, Arizona community and was the new owner of a Chevron Gas Station in town. Sodhi had initially moved to Los Angeles, CA in 1989 when he immigrated to the US from his native India, eventually working for over ten years as a cab driver in Los Angeles and San Francisco. When Sodhi saved enough money, he relocated his wife and three sons to Mesa to open the gas station which he now owned.
The station was an enormous source of pride for Sodhi and he was known to treat the customers with generosity and care. Children claimed that he often let them have candy from his store though they didn't have enough money pay for it. Sodhi was a Sikh, a deeply spiritual man, described as a quiet and gentle. He would often spend time outside his gas station, planting and tending to his flowers outside.
But on September 11th as he watched his TV, Sodhi knew he stood out – his long black beard, a turban pinned to his head, and dark brown skin that were all manifestations of his Punjabi roots. So on September 15th, he did what many distraught Indians, Middle Easterns, and Muslim Americans did: he went to the store and purchased an American flag to display outside his gas station. A symbol that he was not the enemy but an American like his neighbors. On his way out of the store he donated seventy-five dollars to the September 11th victims fund.
A few hours later Sodhi was back outside his gas station doing what he had come to enjoy – planting flowers. As he stooped over to put another flower into the earth, the silence was shattered by a loud pop. Then the first was followed by four more gunshots. As Sodhi's shirt began to soak in a pool of crimson, he crumbled to ground, tires screeching as his assailant sped away in a pick-up truck. Balbir Singh Sodhi was killed instantly, his life cut short at the age of fifty-two.
His assailant was captured, a man named Frank Roque, a Boeing aircraft mechanic who would exclaim after the murder, “I'm a patriot... I stand for America all the way!” After his arrest, Roque told the police that he was, “standing up for his brothers and sisters in New York,” by delivering on the promise that he was, “going to go out and shoot some towel-heads.”
At Balbir Singh Sodhi's memorial service, three thousand people attended. Ten-thousand letters were sent in support and in condolence. The loss, pain, and rage as was addressed by Sodhi's nephew, Daman, “he was killed because of the way he looked. It's so stupid.” Sodhi's own son, Sukhwinder, talked about his father's murder, “what are you going to do with anger? We like peace and we are a peaceful people.” The service chose to reflect on peace rather than condemnation and focused on finding a way to “keep American's hearts open to one another,” as expressed by Sikh minister, Guru Roop Kaur Khalsa.
Its been two years since I originally wrote this story line. I couldn't have imagined the number of shootings, murders, that would occur in the two years since - the public shooting of Gloria Giffords in Arizona, the recent tragedy in Colorado, the Oikos University shooting in Oakland, and now the Sikh temple shooting in Wisconsin.
My question is when does it end? It's too easy to pick up a gun and shoot innocent, unarmed people that don't see it coming. It's cowardly. It's entrenched in misunderstanding, ignorance, and hatred. It's easy to hate and life can be taken irresponsibly in an instant. What is far harder is tolerance. Understanding. Love. It takes an acceptance of differences in order to love and that is far more difficult.
Many of the Sikhs interviewed in Wisconsin surprised me. They expressed sympathy for the shooter and forgiveness. They accepted that he was a misguided and deeply troubled man. It seemed to echo what was said by the family of Balbir Singh Sodhi over ten years ago. Sodhi's own son, Sukhwinder, talked about his father's murder, “what are you going to do with anger? We like peace and we are a peaceful people.” But now, I keep wondering what one does with anger. What would happen if the victims families decided to take up arms and shoot back in retaliation, if they allowed themselves a violent outlet for their pain?
Amardeep Singh Kaleka, the son of Satwant Singh Kaleka (declared a hero by the FBI for stopping the assailant in the recent Wisconsin attack), spoke to Anderson Cooper about the his father's murder. His words were not as resigned as Sodhi's son, “I hope American society lets go of its criminal violence and violence in America. And its hatred and this amazingly repugnant descent as a human civilization into this archaic world. I hope that we can traverse and come up, and become more civilized.”
The shooter performed an abominable act but what motivated him to kill was a basic human behavior of which we've all been guilty – the judgment of another. And perhaps the passing of judgment is actually our own anger and dissatisfaction with ourselves? One only hopes that the cycle ends is in each of us. Of judgement. Of hatred. Of the belief that our way is the only way. It is within ourselves that we must turn our attention.