Journey from Oak Creek to Newtown

Published on Washington Post.

When my plane landed in Connecticut early Friday afternoon, I was glad to be home. I had just spent the week in Oak Creek, Wis., with families of victims murdered in the mass shooting on Aug. 5, 2012 at a Sikh temple. Their grief is still fresh, and it was both heart-breaking and cathartic to facilitate discussion and healing. I could never have imagined that I would be traveling from the site of one mass shooting to another, this time in my own backyard.

The mass murder of 20 children and seven adults in Newtown, Conn., has rocked the nation, especially Connecticut. It is difficult to process such horror inside an elementary school in a nearby idyllic New England town surrounded by thick woods and shining rivers. At the same time, as a Sikh American, it was also impossible to imagine gunfire inside a house of worship, a place of prayer and peace, as we witnessed in Oak Creek. We should never have to hear gunfire in our schools, shopping malls, or houses of worship. As we reel from the seventh mass shooting this year alone, I hear people ask: What can we do?

Today, we mourn; tomorrow we organize.

At a vigil in Newtown last night, I sat in the pews beside shaken parents holding their children tight, teenagers choking back tears, and grandparents quiet and solemn. An army of media cameras waited outside, but inside the church, we mourned openly and took comfort in one another. And we weren’t alone. Parents everywhere feel the pain of Newtown; the nation is mourning together. This moment of national unity offers a rare and fleeting moment to spark a national discussion on violence in America.

We have seen other moments of unity this year, but none have sustained national discourse. In August after the Oak Creek tragedy, Americans held hundreds of vigils, sent thousands of letters, and lowered flags to half-staff. That display of solidarity, though arguably short-lived, emboldened civil rights advocates to organize for policy changes and resulted in a historic senate hearing on Sept. 19, 2012. But it did not sustain a national conversation about how to end violence in our nation. On the heels of Oak Creek, Newtown could be the tipping point that turns recent moments of mourning into a movement to end mass violence.

To be sure, we need more than stricter gun control laws to prevent another shooting: we need to untangle the root causes of violence. In response to Oak Creek, where the gunman was a former white supremacist, we need to combat hate in our schools and communities and instill values of respect and pluralism. In response to Aurora and perhaps Newtown, we need to support people with mental illness inside our healthcare, education and criminal justice systems. Most importantly, we need to recognize that people who commit violence often act out of rage, fear and despair – the very emotions their actions evoke in us. When we cultivate empathy, compassion, and hope within ourselves, we heal our families and communities too.

In his first public statement, President Obama connected the dots between these tragedies and set the stage for public debate around solutions.

“As a country, we have been through this too many times – whether it’s an elementary school in Newtown or a shopping mall in Oregon, or a temple in Wisconsin, or a movie theater in Aurora, or a street corner in Chicago,” Obama said Friday. “We’re going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent tragedies like this, regardless of the politics.”

In a year with a record number of casualties in mass shootings, the horror in Newtown has the potential to catalyze that meaningful action.

At the end of the vigil in Newtown Friday night, we sang one last hymn together before braving the cold for the drive home. It was called the Hymn of Promise, and voices rose softly to sing through tears: “In the cold and snow of winter, there’s a spring that waits to be / unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.”

It may be that God alone can see it. But only we can plant the seeds.