These observations may well explain the comparatively scant press coverage that the Oak Creek attack has received. There is, however, another factor that explains the reticence of Americans to focus on the massacre at the Sikh temple. It has less to do with the victims than the gunman. The key factor isn't that they're Sikhs; it's that the homegrown terrorism–a term no one would object to had a murderous Muslim burst into the Sikh temple–was perpetrated by a white man.
Hold the victims constant and give the perpetrator the last name Mohammed. Does anyone think that such an attack wouldn't be the most discussed story at Fox News and National Review? And at various network news shows and newspapers for that matter? Instead, a man named Wade Michael Page was the gunman.
He remains obscure.
Attacks like his are disconcerting to Americans for a seldom acknowledged reason. Since 9/11, many have conflated terrorism with Muslims. Having done so, they've tolerated or supported counterterrorism policies safe in the presumption that people unlike them would bear their brunt. If Mayor Bloomberg and the NYPD sent officers beyond the boundaries of New York City to secretly spy on evangelical Christians or Israeli students or people who own handguns, the national backlash would be swift, brutal, and decisive. The revelation of secret spying on Muslim American students was mostly defended or ignored.
In the name of counterterrorism, many Americans have given their assent to indefinite detention, the criminalization of gifts to certain religious charities, the extrajudicial assassination of American citizens, and a sprawling, opaque homeland security bureaucracy; many also advocated policies like torture or racial profiling.
What if white Americans were as likely as Muslims to be victimized by those policies? What if the national security bureaucracy starts directing attention not just at Muslims and their schools and charities, but at right-wing militias and left-wing environmental groups (or folks falsely accused of being members because they seem like the sort who would be)? There are already dossiers on non-Muslim extremist groups. In a post-9/11 world, Islamic terrorism has nevertheless been the overwhelming priority, and insofar as innocents have suffered, Muslims have been affected far more than any other identifiable group, because the ongoing paradigm shift in law enforcement mostly hasn't spread beyond them.
Will that remain true if the next terrorist attack looks like Oklahoma City? How would President Obama or President Romney wield executive power in the aftermath of such an attack? Who would be put on no fly lists? Whose cell phone conversations and email exchanges would be monitored without their ever knowing?
It ought to be self-evident that non-Muslims perpetrate terrorist attacks, and that a vanishingly small percentage of Muslims are terrorists, but those two truths aren't widely appreciated in America. That doesn't mean they won't reassert themselves, for terrorist attacks have always been with us; the tactic has never been exclusive to a single ideology for very long; and the power the state marshals against one sort of terrorist is sure to be first to hand when another sort strikes.