The very first victim of “retaliatory” violence following the Sept. 11 terror attacks was Arizona businessman Balbir Singh Sodhi. Sodhi was shot five times in the chest with a .380 handgun fired by 42-year-old Boeing mechanic Frank Silva Roque.
Roque was so proud of his act, that he boasted of it at a local bar. Witnesses reported hearing the man describe murdering a “turban-head” down the street; an act that he believed justified because he had misidentified the race and religion of his victim.
Sodhi was Sikh.
He’d moved the US in 1989 from Punjab, India to work as a cab driver in Los Angeles, Calif. Eventually, he’d saved enough money to purchase the gas station where he was killed.
Less than a year later, Sodhi’s younger brother Sukhpal was killed by a stray bullet while cab driving in San Francisco, Calif.
Twice faced with tragedy, Balbir’s young son Suhkwinder had lost both his father and uncle to senseless violence. But, he did not take-up arms. He did not flee his American home.
According to interviews, he put aside his anger, reminding his friends and relatives that Sikhs are peaceful people.
This Sikh family was not the only victim of wayward violence in the wake of the September 11 attacks.
A decade after the fatal shooting of Sukhpal, a white supremacist named Wade Michael Page stormed into a Gurudwara or Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wis.
Once inside, Page murdered Parmajit Kaur, Satwant Singh Keleka, Prakash Singh, Sita Singh, Ranjit Singh, and Suveg Singh.
Among the dozens of injured was now retired Oak Creek Police Lieutenant Brian Murphy. Murphy rushed into the temple in an attempt to rescue those under attack.
His bravery resulted in him sustaining 15 separate bullet wounds, including one which permanently damaged his ability to speak.
Sikhs in the United States refused to respond to the act with violence, instead focusing on rebuilding the wounded Gurudwara and hero officer.
But, these are only the highest profile incidents of misguided hate against Sikhs in America. Casual conversation with any Sikh in the US reveals a pattern of discrimination ranging from muttered racial slurs like “towel head” to “ISIS” and “KKK” scrawled on homes, Gurudwaras and Indian owned businesses. In one survey, more than 55 percent of Sikh children reported serious, persistent bullying as a result of their appearance.
As recently as April, media sources in California were reporting on a case in which an elderly Sikh man was assaulted and seriously injured by two teenager who claimed the man was Muslim.
In June, Sikhs in Nashville, Tenn. were targeted for a “retaliatory” attack in which their horse was shot execution style in the head. The perpetrators of this crime remain at large.
A quick scan of Twitter reveals numerous stories like these of violent or threatening behavior towards Sikhs, mostly motivated by ignorance of the difference between Sikhs and Muslims.
#afterseptember11 my dad was held at gun point while leaving work and was forced to apologize for a crime he didn’t commit
— – (@sincerelyaneeza) September 11, 2016
#afterseptember11 my best friend and his family moved out of NY because someone destroyed their convenient store and wrote threat letters.
— Kadeshia/Kady/K.K. (@itsKadysucka) November 19, 2015
#afterseptember11 I witnessed my mom getting rocks thrown at her when taking me to school
— champaynemaami (@ahmedyasmine66) November 19, 2015
#afterseptember11 guy across the street yelled ‘terrorist’ but I didn’t know what terrorist was because I was 8. Not even muslim, just brown
— Dallon (@D4LL0N) November 18, 2015
Currently, no federal agency tracks incidents of hate crime against Sikhs. Aside from studies from various Sikh advocacy groups like the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund, there are no solid statistics on violence against Sikhs.
According to SALDEF, there were 800 incidents of racially motivated crime against Sikhs verified by the US Department of Justice in 2005. However, the group estimates this maybe a gross underestimation of total incidents. Actual numbers could be more than 15 times higher than those reported by the nation’s top law enforcement agency.
SALDEF’s independent research also suggests that the vast majority of these cases involve Sikhs mistaken for other ethnicities and religions.