In the hours after last month's shooting spree at a theater in Aurora, Colorado, my twitter feed was abuzz with news and speculation about the event. In the hours after Sunday's shooting spree at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, my twitter feed was abuzz with... complaints about NBC's coverage of the Olympics.
I exaggerate, but not by much. On twitter and blogs and many web sites, the difference in intensity of coverage between Aurora and Oak Creek seems to me close to an order of magnitude. (On some traditional news sites--e.g. the New York Times--the difference seems significant but not so vast.)
Some of this can be accounted for by the number of deaths--twelve vs. six--and maybe some of it by the theatricality of the Batman murders. But I think some of it has to do with the fact that the people who shape discourse in this country by and large aren't Sikhs and don't know many if any Sikhs. They can imagine their friends and relatives--and themselves--being at a theater watching a batman movie; they can't imagine being in a Sikh temple.
This isn't meant as a scathing indictment; it's only natural to get freaked out by threats in proportion to how threatening they seem to you personally. At the same time, one responsibility of journalists and pundits is to see things in terms of their larger social significance. And it seems to me that the Sikh temple shooting, viewed in that context, is at least as frightening as the Aurora massacre. This was violence across ethnic lines, and that kind of violence has a long history of eroding and even destroying social fabric.
That's the irony. What freaks people out about Aurora is the "randomness" of it; that's what makes it seem like a threat to one and all. But I'm not aware of any societies falling apart because of truly random violence--perpetrated by members of no particular political or ethnic group against members of no particular political or ethnic group. That kind of violence doesn't grow via retaliation until it's tribe against tribe, because there's no group to retaliate against in the first place.
I'm of course not saying that a Sikh-vs.-non-Sikh civil war is in the offing. But a white supremacist neo-Nazi, which Wade Page seems to have been, is a multi-group hater--African-Americans, Jews, Muslims, Hispanics, Sikhs, etc. And there are specific cycles of inter-ethnic retaliation you can imagine unfolding in America today.
For example: Persecution of Muslims leads to home-grown terrorism, home-grown terrorism leads to more persecution of Muslims, etc. This is a more plausibly devastating dynamic than anything likely to be unleashed by James Holmes. Yet yesterday, when a mosque was burned to the ground in Joplin, Missouri, the event got almost no coverage.
James Holmes represents a problem very much worth worrying about. But I don't find him, and what he represents, as scary as the people pictured above. And I don't find the spectacle he created in Aurora, horrible as it was, as ominous as the shooting in Oak Creek, or for that matter as ominous as the scene pictured below in Joplin.