Buddhist Identity and the DC Navy Yard Shooter

When the news broke that the shooter who had killed 32 at Virginia Tech was Asian, I thought what many Asian Americans thought across the U.S.  “Please don’t let him be my kind of Asian.” Well, actually I prayed that he not be Chinese, but you get the picture.  This reaction was shared by many Asian Americans regardless of our political views or how we generally felt about race in the U.S. Even when it turned out that the shooter was of not of Chinese descent, that only mitigated my sense of collective shame or guilt-by-association; it didn’t erase it.

Part of the reason for this, I think, is due to the Asian tendency to think collectively. You are never just your own person.  What you do, how you behave, reflects on your parents, your family, your village or town, your nation. It is a difficult thing to explain to folks who grew up in completely Westernized sensibilities, because obviously I know the difference between me and other family members, for example. We are different entities. But I cannot conceptualize myself, except as in relation to them, and I cannot do anything without thinking about how it impacts them.  Turning that around, whatever others in my family or nation or ethnicity do impacts me as well, to varying extents. There are no hard lines of demarcation, only gradations.

Another part of the “collective guilt” phenomenon is due to being an ethnic minority within the U.S.  Like all marginalized ethnic groups, we know that the actions of someone else in our group will be used to judge the rest of us, whether we had anything to do with that person.  When white men commit a violent crime, people seek to explain his actions as an individual (mental illness, troubled childhood, monster...) as opposed to judging his entire race. When Black men commit a violent crime it’s “evidence” that Black men have tendencies towards violence and criminality. When Latino men commit a violent crime it’s “evidence” of the perils of immigration and “gangs.” The reaction against Asians in the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings were more mixed and muted. We were shielded from a stronger backlash by prevailing stereotypes. Asian American individuals (particularly East Asian American individuals) are considered too “meek” and “feminine” to be taken seriously as a threat. As a group, however, we become the Yellow Peril or Yellow Hoarde. Thus most of the attacks levied against us in the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings came in the form of anti-immigrant rhetoric.

When the news broke that the shooter who had killed 12 at the DC Naval Yard was Buddhist, I felt a similar pang of shame mixed with a very different pang of guilt. The shame was similar because I felt a connection with him through Buddhism. Let me be clear. I do not for even a nanosecond believe that Buddhism influenced him towards the direction of violence. If anything, it makes more sense that he had turned to Buddhism to help him cope with violent urges likely due to post-traumatic stress from war, and in the end it just wasn’t enough. And obviously I know that Aaron Alexis and I are two separate people. Regardless, there is a sense of collective identity through something we shared.

But the sense of guilt was very different in that I knew with 99% certainty that the media and most of my fellow U.S.Americans would not focus on Aaron Alexis being Buddhist as a cause for his actions. They would not speculate about how he got “radicalized” in a Buddhist temple. Not question his association with other Buddhists to see whether they had any involvement. Not call on other Buddhists to condemn these actions and blame them for not renouncing him loudly enough. No, if anything the reaction would be / has been, “How could a Buddhist do something like this?”  “He must not really have been Buddhist.”

Similar to ethnicity, people who hold marginalized religious identities in the U.S. do not get to be judged as individuals. Here in the U.S. (and in other “Western” countries), when someone who is Protestant Christian commits a violent crime, their religion is rarely considered relevant. People again look to other clues to attempt to explain the person’s behavior.  But if a person who is Muslim commits a violent crime, their religion seems to be the only thing that is considered relevant.  Nevermind evidence of mental illness or that the person may have been motivated by political reasons that are not religious. Where religious identity differs from ethnicity, it's in that people can more easily convert into and out of religious traditions. And in the U.S., the folks who convert into Islam tend more to be African American/Black, whereas the folks who convert into Buddhism tend more to be Euro American/white. That difference makes it even easier to demonize Muslims, more difficult to demonize Buddhists.

The media are not blaming Alexis’ actions on Buddhism because that does not fit the prevailing narrative of an inherently peaceful religion full of exoticized stoic Eastern monks and more familiar looking white adherents. Perceptions of Buddhists are filtered through positive stereotypes and contradicting data are ignored or explained away.  Whereas perceptions of Muslims are filtered through negative stereotypes and contradicting data are patently ignored.  Neither stereotype sees adherents of the respective religions for who they are with all their complexities.

This is, to put it simply, UNFAIR. And that is where the pang of guilt comes from.

And so I feel like it’s my obligation, to my Muslim sisters and brothers, and to fairness and justice, to say to everyone that yes, Aaron Alexis was Buddhist.  He didn’t just kinda sorta attend a Buddhist temple, nor did he lose his “Buddhist membership card” by committing an act of violence.  He was Buddhist.  And if you don’t blame Buddhism for his actions (which of course you shouldn’t), then you shouldn’t blame Islam for any violent actions of its adherents either.

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