Tuesday night I sat with my children at the Sikh temple in Memphis and wondered what triggered Wade Michael Page to kill six people at the Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wis.. Though no one will know for sure, this much seems certain: Page had seeds of white supremacism planted in his mind for decades.
I also wondered what I could do to avert future massacres. For this I reached back to my faith.
The Eastern religions tell us that the precursor to hateful and violent actions is hateful and violent speech. This was evident in Page. He associated himself with neo-Nazis and founded a band whose song lyrics spoke of “getting rid” of the “enemies of the white race” and “gathering your guns.” Page had a tattoo on his right arm with the number 14 representing the following words. “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.”
Though you and I would likely never imagine using such inflammatory speech and taking part in such violent actions, there is much we can learn from Page. Every moment we must be mindful because our words can be deceitful, slanderous, malicious, harsh or vile. Our words can mend or rip apart friendships and family relationships. Our words can wage wars or attain peace. And oftentimes it is these very words, our speech, which translate into actions.
Our Constitution has drawn a line. It is illegal to commit hateful and violent actions, but hateful speech, similar to Page’s lyrics, tattoos and writings, is protected under the First Amendment. Nevertheless, some workplaces, college campuses and other nations are not so lenient. Germany, for example, has strict laws prohibiting hate speech.
So what makes people advocate hatred and violence? The Eastern religions tell us that the precursors to our words are our thoughts. Thoughts and intentions drive our speech. An angry thought makes us blurt out a curse, and a fearful situation makes us scream. By the same token, a quiet calm mind softens our voice.
So what can I do? As a parent I limit the use of violent video games and movies for my children. While study results have been conflicting, a review of the literature, published by the American Psychological Association, found that violent video games are associated with increased aggressive behavior, thoughts, and affect; increased physiological arousal; and decreased helping behavior. I even avoid purchasing plastic guns that resemble real guns, because I understand the cascade effect of thoughts to speech to actions.
Though the relationship among thoughts, speech and action may appear too simplistic, it is an integral part of a 2,500-year-old tradition of an eight-fold path in Buddhism and what are called the “Jewels of Jainism” on how to reduce suffering in our lives.
Each year at the Gandhi-King Conference on Peacemaking sponsored by the National Civil Rights Museum here in Memphis, the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center and a number of local organizations, we discuss how to promote nonviolent thought, speech and action in our community and our world.
We talk about our need to transform ourselves and those around us. Transform our thoughts of anger to forgiveness and hatred to understanding. Transform our speech of unfounded criticism to genuine praise, and cursing to compliments. Transform our actions of hurting to healing and discrimination to equality.
Mahatma Gandhi, an apostle of nonviolence, once said:
Keep your thought positive, because your thoughts become your words; Keep your words positive because your words become your behavior. ... And your behavior leads to habits, values and ultimately your destiny.”
As a nation if we wish to have a destiny of nonviolence or the Promised Land the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., dreamed about, we must foster nonviolent thoughts, speech and actions – whether it be in the workplace or on the playground, in the movies or on video games or simply by our emails or passing conversations.
A close friend from the Indian community who lives near Oak Creek visited the Sikh temple a few hours after the shooting, and in an email he wrote to me, “I saw a white-clad guru with a white turban and a long flowing white beard. With a saintly smile he said to all of us, ‘We have no anger or animosity to anyone. We must keep calm and faith.’”
To me, the nonviolent words of the white-turbaned Sikh guru speak louder than the hate and violent actions of the shooter.