Guns, Sikhs and Obama’s political inertia on domestic terror

Immediately after the Oak Creek massacre, many suspected the killings were a continuation of the post-9/11 wave of attacks on Sikhs who were mistaken for Muslims because of their turbans and beards.

The most notorious of these attacks came just four days after 9/11, when Frank Roque murdered gas station owner Balbir Singh Sodhi in Mesa, Arizona after publicly declaring his intention to “go out and shoot some towel-heads”. According to the FBI there were 295 attacks on Sikhs in the weeks following 9/11, and the Sikh Coalition says there have been more than 700 attacks in the years since. Just last year two elderly Sikh men were shot dead in Sacramento, which the Southern Poverty Law Centre identified as part of a “year-long rash of anti-Muslim hate.”

There was always something misleading about this narrative of innocent Sikhs being “mistaken” for Muslims. Someone who is prepared to kill people based on their appearance is probably indifferent to the distinctions between different eastern religions. Retaliation against the misdeeds of Islam is an excuse rather than a reason for racist violence.

The Oak Creek shooter has been identified as Wade Michael Page, front-man of a skinhead band called End Apathy who had previously been on the radar of Federal investigators because of his ties to white supremacist groups. As he was shot dead by police we may never know his exact motive, but it seems unlikely he would have cared that he shot up a Temple rather than a Mosque.

Despite the FBI’s designation of this mass shooting as “domestic terrorism”, President Obama has taken the same extremely cautious approach that he took to the Colorado movie theatre massacre less than a month previously. He told reporters on Monday:

If it turns out, as early reports indicate, that it may have been motivated in some way by the ethnicity of those who were attending the temple, I think the American people immediately recoil against those kinds of attitudes.

He called for “soul searching” to examine “additional ways to reduce violence”. Obama does not want to be accused of jumping to conclusions about the politics of the shooter, and he wants to avoid any suggestion that he will use this massacre to push for stricter gun control.

For some it doesn’t matter what Obama actually says or does; in the minds of right-wing fantasists he is always plotting the seizure of guns and the persecution of conservatives. The National Rifle Association has repeatedly accused Obama of being a “crusader” for gun control, despite his record of near-silence on the issue that has disappointed every gun control advocate from Michael Bloomberg to John Howard.

Mitt Romney tried to exploit these fears when he warned the NRA national convention that if Obama were re-elected, “our freedoms would be in the hands of an Obama court, not just for the next four years, but for the next 40”. Romney is also considered suspect by the gun lobby but he does not inspire the same kind of paranoia as the President, whom even mainstream Republicans routinely call a “socialist” and is still thought to be a Muslim by 34% of conservative Republicans.

As President, Bill Clinton enacted major gun control legislation. Obama has shied away from similar moves. AAP/Laura Friezer

Progressives often compare Obama unfavourably with Bill Clinton on the issue of gun control. Following a shooting rampage on a New York train in 1993, Clinton almost immediately demanded legislation restricting assault weapons with high-capacity magazines, of the same kind that have featured in nearly every recent mass shooting. The subsequent assault weapons ban passed by the Democratic Congress was not popular.

Democrats blamed it for their massive losses in the 1994 Congressional election, where they lost control of the House for the first time in 40 years. In the extremely close 2000 election, Al Gore’s tie-breaking vote in the senate to renew the ban was almost certainly a factor in his defeat. So, while Obama has previously expressed tepid support for reinstating the now expired ban, it is easy to see why he has tried to dodge the issue by saying that Congress would never pass it.

For now Americans seem prepared to live with the fact that the Second Amendment, as it is currently interpreted, will protect the rights of citizens to amass arsenals of semi-automatic weapons.

Some of these arsenals will be in the hands of members of fringe political and religious groups. After the violent catastrophes of Waco and Ruby Ridge inspired the most lethal act of domestic terrorism in American history, Americans have been wary of government attempts to crack down on heavily armed political and religious subcultures, even unpopular ones.

Americans are unwilling to give away any rights over acts of domestic terrorism. The same cannot be said for terrorism without the “domestic” label. This is why the distinction between the two continues to be politically important.

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