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Without fear or waver

Even as calls for soul-searching echo in the US, in the wake of the Wisconsin gurudwara tragedy, it is the absence of fear that is most notable, writes Navroop Mitter.

The tragic images of the past few days in the US - from shootings at a Wisconsin gurudwara, the burning of a mosque in Missouri, and the countless vigils held in memory of those who fell in these attacks - have caused many Americans, including most Indian-Americans, to pause and look within. Especially in moments of un-connectedness. And in the often visceral responses to these tragedies, including my own, I have found evidence of frustration, compassion, empathy, gratitude, and optimism. Significantly, what I haven't found any evidence of is fear.

Certainly there are parents who have asked their children to be extra careful, but there is no evidence of panic-stricken parents asking their children to alter their identities;no calls for everyone to stay home or behind closed doors;no rush to slap an American flag on every available surface of one's body and car.

In fact, the opposite is true. Within hours of the shootings tactical calls were held to organise vigils to show support for the Oak Creek Sikh community. Sikh entrepreneurs banded together to setup an online donation campaign and raised more than $100, 000 in less than 48 hours for the families affected by Sunday's shootings. Sikhs took to Facebook and Twitter, providing direct feedback to news anchors, reporters, and journalists everywhere, sometimes showering praise and other times vocalising discontent at factual errors or omissions. They wanted their voices heard. Neighbours of different faiths and even complete strangers hugged Sikhs in the streets. And Sikhs made it a point to spread the word about the outpouring of support they received.

Indeed, many of us share a deep admiration and respect for this nation's armed forces, which made it even sadder to see a former US military veteran who had once sworn to protect our country against enemies become just that, our enemy. But it was incredibly heartening to see bravery in the face of horror.

Brian Murphy, the police officer who arrived on the scene and was shot several times, selflessly refused aid and instead sent fellow officers to bring those inside the gurdwara to safety even as he lay in a pool of his own blood. This earned him the respect of Sikhs and others, and a great number of them have written to him to express gratitude and offer prayers for his recovery. Sardar Satwant Singh Kaleka, president of the gurdwara and one of its casualties, fought the shooter providing a muchneeded opportunity for others to escape. Everyone has since extolled his bravery.

Clearly, it appears that frustration, compassion, empathy, gratitude, and optimism are definitely present, but fear is not. More amazingly though, the 'them not us' response was kept at bay. When non-Sikhs wrote in to let Sikhs know they were saddened that such a tragedy occurred due to mistaken identity, many Sikhs reminded them that even if the shooter hadn't been misinformed and if this had happened at a mosque, it couldn't be justified. While Sikhs expressed frustration that even the educated media elite in America knew very little about the Sikh faith, and that too few eloquent Sikhs were on the news agencies' speed dial, this desire to clarify the Sikh identity did not trump the desire to display unity with others. More education on Sikhs and Muslims is needed in general, but it is doubtful that a hate filled xenophobe like the Wisconsin shooter would have cared regardless.

People are now clamouring for increased understanding and acceptance without having to relinquish their identities. They should clamour. Xenophobia and terror are not befitting for a nation whose foundational documents serve as a model for much of the world.

At my own workplace, an intern came in on Monday and let me know how sorry she was for what happened on Sunday, a more or less expected response. What happened next shocked me. She let me know she had just learned about Sikhs. Despite all of us working in close proximity and talking about intimate details of our personal lives, she never felt comfortable asking about my turban.

When a local group focused on highlighting diversity as part of a body image campaign asked about my perspectives on wearing a turban in business, I considered it briefly. Frankly, I've always found it to be a boon, and I've never shied away in business on account of my appearance. It has made me memorable wherever I am in the world. Despite that, when it came time to share my thoughts, I hesitated.

Sunday's tragedy has highlighted the need for a conversation about pluralism that has been previously found to be too uncomfortable or too unfamiliar, that we have been lacking the radical stimulus necessary to bring to the national level. Each distinct identity needs to be part of the conversation as it plays out nationally and perhaps, even more importantly, at pubs, sports bars, arenas, playgrounds, schools and workplaces across the US. As clichêd as it sounds, it is all these distinct identities that make us a nation.

The writer is CEO of Gryphn, a US-based technology startup

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