On Tuesday this week I emailed Media Watch, and Radio National’s AM, Breakfast and Drive programs a version of the same simple query: "If Sunday worshippers in a Christian church had been targeted by a Sikh, Hindu or Muslim gunman, would the ABC’s morning analysis programs (AM, Breakfast) have found a few minutes to discuss it, despite the sad Olympics news?"
My inquiry was prompted by the fact that on that morning the Breakfast program featured no fewer than seven items on the London Olympics, but did not make a single reference to the massacre that had been carried out during a Sunday service in a Sikh temple in Wisconsin in the United States.
AM, ABC Radio’s premier morning news program, was equally silent on this topic — although almost as loquacious as Breakfast about the Olympics.
Perplexed and dismayed by this omission on the part of our national broadcaster, I sought enlightenment from the ABC. Only Media Watch took the time to respond, pointing out that AM, PM and The World Today had covered the story the previous day, and that perhaps there had been "no new developments" since. Yet, overnight US officials had for the first time identified the gunman. He was named as Wade M Page, a former US solider with links to white supremacist groups.
In whose book would the confirmation of a racist motivation for the massacre fail to rate as a new development?
The muted response to this story not only at the ABC but across the Australian mainstream media is in striking contrast to the extensive coverage of the movie theatre massacre in Colorado less than a month ago. The two killings, as some commentators have pointed out, have a number of commonalities. Not least, they raise questions about the relation between popular culture and violence (Wade Page was on the radar of civil rights watch groups for his involvement with white supremacist rock bands).
But the most significant difference between the two killings is that the Colorado cinema massacre had no obvious racist motivation.
The targeting of the Wisconsin Sikh Temple clearly did. Attacks on Sikhs have been on the rise since 9/11. It is unclear whether this is because the attackers are not able to distinguish Sikhs from Muslims or simply don’t care.
The Wisconsin massacre carries disturbing reminders of Anders Breivik’s mass killings in Norway in 2011. Although Page, like Breivik, is seen as acting alone, both men were clearly formed and nurtured by a transnational white supremacist network with considerable organisational, social and cultural reach — one which, at the very least, provided them with emotional support and psychic reinforcement. Intellectual support for this movement comes from a spectrum of sources, ranging from the extreme racist right to mainstream political figures opposed to migrants and refugees. Breivik is known to have cited former Prime Minister John Howard, as well as other prominent Australian conservatives, in his manifesto.
The Australian media’s interest in the Colorado cinema massacre involved a degree of cultural distancing — only in the USA! — but the killing of the Wisconsin Sikhs requires more than complacency or sensationalism. Beyond asking the question could it happen here? it requires us to consider the extent to which hate networks, often as part of a transnational white supremacist movement, have gained ground in Australian public life during the last decade. What are the consequences and implications of their increased presence?
In Australia, the asylum seeker debate is the clearest instance of the prevalence of extreme xenophobic abuse and incitements to violence against those assumed to be migrants or refugees. A cursory trawl through any opinion website reveals how commonplace such sentiments are, but I have yet to see a serious analysis in the mainstream media of how transnational white supremacism registers in Australian life.
Is the challenge of understanding the increased prevalence of racist hatred in Australia part of the explanation for our reluctance to attend to the story of the Wisconsin Sikh massacre?
Or I am being too harsh in suggesting that the Sikh Temple massacre raises questions that are just too difficult and disturbing for Australian media to address?
Perhaps the answer is a much simpler one: that these deaths just don’t rate in a big news week. Whereas Australian media and politicians have been obsessed with numbers in recent weeks — toting up the numbers of Olympic wins, while also keeping an eye on the numbers of boat arrivals, tallying the number of bodies in detention, or calculating the potential numbers of asylum seekers (in the tens of millions if some commentators are to be credited!) — maybe some other bodies, like the six Sikh-Americans murdered by a white supremacist gunman, just don’t count.