It is impossible, really, to analyze what drives a person to this level of violence. No doubt many factors, personal and otherwise, intermingle to produce a flashpoint.
Yet that can't keep us off from confronting the evidence that the Sikh temple killer, Wade Michael Page, may have been motivated by hatred of Muslims. And it can't excuse the people — some of whom hold political office —who have so irresponsibly fanned those flames in recent years, moving many ideas that used to be relegated to extremist groups closer to the mainstream, where they are infecting American political discourse.
Page, 40, was no stranger to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks right-wing extremist groups. The center had been following the ex-soldier — and his white supremacist band, "End Apathy" — for more than a decade. Statements from Page's neighbors, plus a "9 /?11" tattoo, further suggest that the killer may have thought that he was targeting Muslims.
Just last April, 90 members of Congress signed a letter to the Justice Department citing a "growing concern" about hate crimes against the Sikh community that have risen since 9/ 11, apparently because the turbans worn by traditional Sikh men reflect a Hollywood stereotype of Muslims. Let's be clear, though: Sikh victims are no more "innocent" than Muslim victims would be.
These attacks come as anti-Muslim rhetoric is growing, and it's coming not only from uneducated yahoos but from others who surely should know better. They include conservative legislators from a number of states who warn (with absolutely no evidence) of a grand conspiracy that Muslims plan to impose Sharia law.
Even in Congress, five Republican representatives — led by the unspeakable Michele Bachmann, of Minnesota — recently let fly with scurrilous charges that the Muslim Brotherhood had infiltrated the American government and that an aide to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was a ringleader. These lies were so over-the-top that Bachmann was rebuked by House Speaker John Boehner as well as by Sen. John McCain (although not by the de facto leader of her party, Mitt Romney).
Is there a straight line between anti-Muslim rhetoric and the Sikh shootings? Of course not. But they contribute to a dangerous climate of intimidation and fear that no Americans should have to face. Pretty statements about keeping the Sikhs in our "thoughts and prayers" ring hollow when hate speech is met with silence.