Courage and Service After the Sikh Temple Shootings
Wisconsin Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen's guest column addresses the many kinds of heroism displayed after a shooter opened fire at the Sikh Temple in Oak Creek.
On Sunday, August 5th, the world was stunned as news spread that a gunman had opened fire on worshippers and law enforcement at the Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. It was a moment in our state's history that we will never forget. Questions about motive still remain and may never be fully answered, but this column is not about the evil of one man. This column is about the strength and dignity of a community. For as sure as we bear witness to the suffering inflicted that day, we also bear witness to the triumph of courage and service over hatred.
The heroism started as soon as the first bullet was fired, when many risked--and some lost--their lives to save others. The heroism continued, as people gathered outside of the temple waiting for news about their loved ones, and the community of volunteers from the Salvation Army, the American Red Cross and other organizations arrived to provide food and comfort. Strangers organized impromptu vigils across the state. A lighted sign at Cathedral Park in Milwaukee summed it up: Wisconsin Weeps. However, Wisconsin did more than weep. Within days, memorial funds were established to help the shooting victims. Law enforcement agencies sent reinforcements to provide security at the temple, at vigils, and at community gatherings. The victim witness coordinators from the FBI and the United States Attorney’s Office Eastern District, who had been working with victims from the first hours of the incident, continued to address victims’ needs. Victims were honored at a public memorial service as hundreds of condolence letters poured into Oak Creek City Hall from dignitaries and citizens around Wisconsin and the world.
It has now been weeks since the shootings, and some of the public attention has waned. However, acts of selflessness and heroism have continued, and members of the Sikh community have continued to take a lead role. Sikh Temple members worked alongside crime scene clean-up professionals just days after the shooting to reclaim their temple for a rededication ceremony and weekly services.
A retired psychologist and a school teacher--both members of the Sikh community--have started a victim support group for Sikh women. A medical support team formed, comprised of Sikh professionals who will provide medical and mental health services for victims at the temple weekly. Sikh community members are helping victim advocates reach those who need additional support. Materials for students and teachers, who will gather soon to start a new school year, are in development. A school administrator in Marinette, Wisconsin, has offered to assist, as one who is all too familiar with the need to support school children in the aftermath of violence.
As Attorney General, I oversee the Office of Crime Victim Services (OCVS), which is housed within the Department of Justice. OVCS has been working alongside those affected by this tragedy, and has witnessed the heroism firsthand. More importantly, OCVS is committed to serving the needs of those affected by the tragedy not just this month, or this year, but for as long as it takes.
Those shot were not the only victims. The children, parents, and others at the temple that day, as well as their family members, also were victimized. Unlike bullet holes in drywall that can be patched, the emotional fallout from violent crime can last for years. OCVS will be there, working with the Sikh community, law enforcement, and the U.S. Attorney’s office, to make sure that all of the victims have access to the medical care, counseling, and other services needed for healing. In addition to pursuing federal grant funds for the victims, OCVS is working to secure assistance to support the ongoing efforts of Oak Creek officials to help the community heal. OCVS also is working to translate information on victim services from English to Punjabi, which is the first language of many Sikhs.
It has been said that a violent act is like a pebble thrown into a pond, as the effects ripple outward, touching more and more people. It is the same with acts of courage and service. Even in our grief, as we lament the events of that day, let the image of these responses shine brightly in our collective memory. For it is not the violence on August 5th that speaks to who we are, but rather, what has followed.