Wisconsin shooting: A call to counter extremist fear

The Wisconsin shootings at a Sikh temple were driven by the fears of Wade Michael Page – and designed to evoke fear. Society's answer to such extremist violence should not be more fear.

Mark Welsh, Daily Herald/AP Photo
Ruby Singh of Long Grove, Ill., participates during a prayer vigil at the Sikh Religious Society temple in Palatine, Ill. on Aug. 6. The vigil was held in memory of those killed and wounded in a weekend Sikh temple shooting near Milwaukee.

For two reasons, the killing rampage at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin last Sunday cannot be easily dismissed as simply that of another white supremacist or crazy person acting alone.

For one, such acts of hatred often come out of a subculture of like-minded people who condone or advocate violence based on a fear of others who are unlike them. 

And two, such killings are usually meant to create fear, either in society at large or among targeted groups such as Muslims, nonwhites, or government officials.

After a violent incident like this one, both types of fear – a public fear of a similar attack and the fear that drives a killer and his supporters – need to be addressed, and not only by law enforcement but by everyone. And for a very basic reason: Fear is what can blind people into making mistakes.

A good example is that Wade Michael Page may have believed that the Sikhs who gathered in a temple in Oak Creek, Wis., were Muslim, perhaps because male Sikhs wear turbans and grow beards.

As with many people who act out of bigotry, he had talked of nonwhites as “dirt people.” At the same time, like mass killers who take on a cosmic cause and then are frustrated at public apathy, he was equally critical of America’s “sick society.” (In fact, his white-supremacist band was named “End Apathy.”)

Discerning Mr. Page’s motives can be helpful to counteract the kind of fears that drive extremists to kill. But it can also be helpful for watchful citizens in assisting law enforcement in tracking such troubled people.

For Page, killing in the name of extreme views may have had a deeper cause in his personal grievances, arising from his checkered upbringing, his discharge from the Army, a lost home and girlfriend, workplace dismissals, and arrests for drunkenness. These are the kinds of signs that can alert family, friends, or colleagues to mental or emotional problems that need intervention.

Far-right extremists who kill aren’t usually acting as “lone wolves.” Like Norwegian militant Anders Behring Breivik, they rely on Internet groups to reinforce their views or to meet others who see themselves as a suppressed community.

They claim a moral high ground that is anything but moral in justifying the murder of the innocent. They see terrorism as a heroic act necessary to awaken a fallen society. For them, achieving their aims through democracy is too slow or too difficult.

Reacting with fear to such killers – whether they be far-right, jihadists, or violent animal-rights groups – only feeds into their design. The FBI and other counterterrorism agencies seek instead a calm resolve from citizens to help monitor individuals who exhibit the behavior of extremists, especially those who keep to themselves. It is very difficult for the FBI, admits director Robert Mueller, to have all the capabilities to alert the agency “when one of those individuals looks like they want to go operational.”

The best antidote to fear-driven violence isn’t more fear. It is the values that uphold a democratic society, such as respect, peaceful means of resolving differences, and an alertness to help those most alienated from society.

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