A Surprising Reaction to the Wisconsin Sikh Temple Shooting

by Nate St. Pierre on August 5, 2012

Just a few hours ago, a gunman opened fire on people at a Sikh temple here in Milwaukee, killing at least 7 people, and wounding a few more.

I was at the lakefront at the time, and was thinking about heading down to my uncle’s house to visit, but I ended up deciding not to go when I heard that Howell Avenue was closed because of the shooting (his house is a couple miles down that road). So this happened very close to me, and my surprising reaction is what I want to discuss today.

I’m not going to talk about any motivations of the shooter, or any religious/political stuff, and I won’t allow it in the comments, either. None of us know anything at the moment anyway, but more importantly, it doesn’t matter. A human life is a human life, and it doesn’t matter where/how/who/why – when people die like this, it’s a tragedy.

But when I sat down just now to evaluate what happened today and my reaction to it, much to my surprise, I found that I didn’t have much of a reaction at all. This is both puzzling and troubling. In the past, I’ve always been the kind of person that does very much feel these kinds of things. I was living in Denver during Columbine – I remember the constant sirens and dozens of emergency vehicles rushing past me, and when I learned what had happened, I cried. I wept openly during the World Trade Center attacks. I have shed tears for more than a few marketplace/public suicide bombings in the Middle East, far from home.

These types of attacks have affected me greatly in the past, as I’m sure they have most of you. But in thinking about the two most recent instances, both today’s events and the Batman shooter in Aurora last month (also a Denver suburb), my reaction wasn’t sadness and pain, or even fear. It was more like “Well, that’s life.”

So here’s the question: Have these acts of public violence become so commonplace now that we’re gradually becoming desensitized to them?

Something that came to mind as an example from my past was the neighborhood I grew up in here in Milwaukee – a pretty bad place in the inner city, filled with gangs, guns, and drugs. There were things that happened there every day that would horrify folks from the suburbs if they were exposed to it, but for us as kids, it was a normal part of life.

There were just certain things you didn’t do, or places you didn’t go, or people you avoided at all costs. If you didn’t, you could get robbed, beaten, stabbed, or shot. That was life. You adapt. And when you see or hear about these things happening in your ‘hood, you don’t bat an eye. You say “well, that’s life” and you move on. I came just seconds or inches from a violent death at least twice while growing up, but it barely left a mark on me, because it wasn’t out of the ordinary for where I lived.

I’m wondering if this kind of random violence is becoming ordinary for the world we now live in. Maybe it doesn’t matter who you are or where you live or what your neighborhood is like – maybe no one is safe anymore, ever. Maybe my mind sees this stuff happening all around and declares it to be the new normal, and nothing to spend emotional energy on. That sounds terribly harsh, but it may be true. It was certainly true growing up.

Then again, maybe it’s just me. Maybe for some reason I’m the only one getting desensitized to this stuff, because I’ve had a few more years of direct experience with random acts of violence than most people I know.

So that’s my question, in a long, rambling, trying-to-process-everything manner. Are we getting desensitized? Is that okay, or not?

What do you guys think? How do you feel?

(Comments are welcome, but please keep them relevant to random public violence, not political/religious bashing. Some people may think this is not appropriate to write about so soon after it happened, but for some people, writing/reading/talking about it helps them process. I am one of those people, so that’s what I’m doing here. Oh, and if anyone suggests that I’m writing this post to get traffic by capitalizing on a tragedy, you’ll be banned for life. Don’t be an idiot.)

  • Martin Jones

    You are right of course, it doesn’t matter who the victim of violence is. It does’t matter where they come from, or where in the world they die. Each death is a tragedy, each victim is a person, a son, daughter, mother, father, brother or sister; each life has been cut short at the whim of the killer or killers. Each is a tragedy that should be felt by us all, but most of the time we are glad that it is not on our doorstep. We may feel for the victims at the time, but a day later, or even an hour later, the media will be full of reports of another atrosity, more people killed at the whim of someone else. We can each only have so much compassion that it is wearing thin. Perhaps it is a defence, in built to help us survive in times of conflict, a deadening of the compassion emotion, in order that we may carry on regardless, so to speak. Either that or we are regressing instead of evolving, and that to my mind is far more scary.

    • I really agree with the defense/coping mechanism thoughts. We only have so much emotional energy to spend in a given day, and the vast majority of it needs to be available to us to handle the stuff in our own life. So when we’re exposed to more and more of these things all the time, we just don’t have any left to give, I think.

    • Peliroo Corrice

      I’m having a similar reaction, Nate.  And I agree with you, Martin.  I know that my brain lets me process only what it can, when it can.  I also know that I protect myself from feeling too much pain until I see each victim presented to me as an individual, with hopes, dreams, kids, favorite foods, kind deeds, etc..  When I see those things, I can’t protect myself from the emotional flood, and I usually cry.  Then it’s personal to me.  Until then, I think I protect myself so I can keep moving.  If I felt that intense pain for everyone that was lost, I’d never make it through a day or week.  

  • LB

    I found it disturbing like are these open shootings the new normal? I too was in Colorado during Columbine, but had a somewhat different experience. I truthfully thought it was just another Denver gang shooting and never really felt sad. I felt wrong for feeling that way, but I didn’t think of it any differently than what goes on normally in Denver.

    But then the Batman shootings happened. I cried, argued and then made peace with the whole thing. I think I had a bigger reaction because I knew people that knew people that could have been there. 6 degrees of seperation was quickly turning into 1 or 2. It was getting scarrier by the day. Once I made peace I went to a movie and felt proud I wasn’t scared and hope everyone else does the same.

    As for the Wisconson shootings I feel bad and scared for our nation as a whole and hope this crap doesn’t continue. I really wonder if shootings in general are rising or just mass shootings, because the way I see it there is always people getting shot in big cities so maybe it’s just mass shootings. If that is the case then the media will cover it more as opposed to all of the Friday night brawls and shit that goes down in the bad neighborhoods. Either way I believe we will just get used to it and call it the new norm. 🙁

  • guest

    My reaction, also, was a bit of a shrug…  yeah, I guess I am getting desensitized to it unfortunately as well.  I have just learned over the last few years that people are tragically, horrifyingly broken and without a personal relationship with Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior of your life… well, sad to say, I guess this is what happens when society breaks down.  I know you said you weren’t going to discuss religion, etc, which I respect… my personal opinion is that this just is more evidence to suggest that we are in fact living in the end times of this world… that Jesus is coming back SOON… and it’s best to get prepared.  That’s my two cents.

  • Jay

    Yep we have 

  • jay

    Please dis-regard the first comment. Hit enter by mistake.  

    As i was saying, Yes we have become de-sensitized. I hail from Mumbai India, where this has been so common, every few years.  Bomb blasts, terrorist attacks ( 186 dead.. less than a km, from where i stay).  Every time it has happened, it takes a piece of your soul and your humanity. 

    We are indeed becoming apathetic. The violence is forever increasing. 4 times i have come close to 1) Being blown 2) Being stabbed 3) Someone shot at a stranger 4 feet from me 4) Another series of blasts. I was in the local behind, the one that exploded. First time around i was like a victim, of PTSD. Cold chills, crying into the night. The 4th time? I shrugged and went to work. 

    The lack of empathy and feeling, is the new norm.

    • Yep, that’s what I’m talking about – that lack of feeling is how I felt growing up, and I think I’m starting to feel that way again. I’m struggling a little with whether that’s a “good”, “okay”, or “bad” thing.

      I’m leaning toward “okay,” because I think it’s a function of how your mind and body automatically does the things it needs to do in order to survive and function relatively normally.

      But then again, it’s really sad to end up that way.


  • I am with Martin as well – a life is a life. 
    The people there are brothers or sisters, daughters or sons. Sometimes the phrase “That’s someone’s son/daughter” is over used. 

    When I heard about the Norway shooting last year I emailed my Mum to tell her that I loved her. Life is precious and so easily taken away whether intentional or accidental. 

    Nate, Have you heard about Esther Day? 

    • I have not heard about Esther Day?

      • I wrote about it on Friday here. Esther Day to celebrate Esther Earl’s birthday – she would have been 18 on Friday except she passed away from cancer last summer. As a way to remember her, people were telling their friends and family that they loved them – a bit like Valentines but to celebrate friendship and family. 

  • Diane Mettam

    I think many people are desensitized to violence, and it is horrifying.  Studies back in the 1950s when I was born, proved that watching violence on television (which was very mild compared to what we see today) led children to imitate that violence.  Television watching was rationed during that time.  Nowadays television and  electronic entertainment is available 24/7, and the level of violence has escalated beyond anything imaginable in the 1950s.  I truly believe people mimic what they see, and many are numb to what they are viewing.  The latest massacre is meaningless.
    But many other people, like me, weep when we hear of the latest atrocity.  And I weep for you, Nate.  I am so sad that our world has come to this.  People call me naive, but perhaps our world needs people like me, people who can’t cope with this violence, and this apathy, to try to lead the world back to another time when these actions were horrifying, unbelievable, and unacceptable. 
    I don’t know what it will take.  I don’t know how we can make it happen.  But I pray, and I talk to the children and adults in my circle.  What happened to the peace-loving young adults of the 1960s?  Where are we now?  It’s time we resurface.

  • This was close to home for me too, and I thought the same thing I always do in these cases.  I’m sad for the victims and their families, and I am sad for our society and world.

    I know that there is love and happiness in the world because I have a lot of it my life.  Then something like this happens I wonder how much pain and hate must it take to drive someone to do something like this and what is wrong with our world that we can’t reach out people and help ease their pain and hate before it comes to this.

    I don’t have any answers, just the reaction, every time.

    The one way I can say I have changed is in how my wife and I consume news like this.  I have a 2 year old daughter and in our house we have a radio on tuned to NPR a lot of the time in the background.  When something like this happens, we shut off the radio for a few days, we keep a remote in our hands when we watch the news and we try to limit our daughter’s exposure to events like this.  We’re not trying to hide bad things in the world from her, we just want to make sure she gets information in a way that is appropriate for her age and that she can handle.  Right now that means shutting it off a lot of the time.  When she’s older, it will tough, and I’m not looking forward to it.

    • I totally agree about how to handle news like this for little ones. I do it all the time for mine, and the local news is NEVER on. Yuck. 

      As an interesting side note, my son was born on September 25th, 2011. I can remember being in the hospital, in the new baby ward, and seeing most of the TVs tuned to the still-smoking wreckage of the World Trade Center towers. It was very sad. 

  • punction

    With regard to the Batman shootings, I didn’t feel as much because it appeared to me more as random violence committed by a mentally unhealthy individual, and America has seen many of those. For me, motivation matters a lot. So when I heard that the Wisconsin shootings were racially motivated, I was sad that that had been the motivation. But I was also even sadder, and maybe a little angry, that ignorance had worsened the situation and provoked the gunman into attacking people who may have not even been his target in the first place. Sikhs get mistaken for Muslims a lot, and I’m so sorry it happened. 

    But you are right, we’re all getting incredibly desensitized to violence and take less time each day to feel thankful that 

  • punction

    we’re alive and safe.

  • With the advent of instant “news” via social media, we are inundated daily with anything horrific that happens anywhere in the world.  Couple this with people “playing” war games and you have a recipe for a desensitized  mind. All life is precious except for the mosquitoes and snakes and spiders and…
    Parasitic memes abound and we as humans need to be careful with what we hold to be true.
    As a sailor I spent many years at sea so I had a lot of time with my own thoughts without the bombardment of daily news. Diane mentioned the 60’s, we smoked weed then. Today we are almost a prison nation because of prohibition and I believe that this has placed a lot of pressure among segments of our society. In a way I wonder what will it take for humans to join together as a people? To forgive each others trespasses and to join each other to promote a hopeful future. Perhaps we need an alien invasion? ET’s would inspire us to work as a people of the planet earth.
    National pride would become world pride. As an american I was in South Africa during 9/11 and we americans gathered together all of us stunned by the news and they showed the unedited version on tv’s of the horrific scene.  My point is that we all that are adults remember where we were during that time.
    As a world traveler, every time I was in a foreign country and met an american regardless of where they were from, or color of skin, or religion, it was always like meeting an old friend. I always went out of my way to talk with the mormans I would see as an example. I would joke about things and get a laugh or two. 
    I believe that when our differences becomes unimportant then our humanness and our species might stand a chance. 

    I just would prefer that any ET visit would be friendly and that they come with knowledge that they are happy to share.

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