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Freedom is not an achievement but an opportunity.
Bhagat Puran Singh
The shaggy block on Milwaukee’s east side was dark, save for a single flickering streetlight and the neon glow coming from a string of ethnic restaurants. I arrived a few minutes early and parked my car at the curb, on the opposite side of the street from the Thai place. Arno recommended we meet there. It was his hangout, he said. I’d know it by the red vinyl awning and flashing CARRY OUT sign.
I left the car running while I waited. The rhythmic sound of the wiper blades scraping freezing drizzle from the windshield was almost hypnotic, though not enough to slow my racing thoughts. I wondered if maybe it had been a mistake to get there early. It gave me too much time to think. Too much time to back out.
More than once I shifted into gear, and then didn’t leave. Why did I stay? I’ve asked myself that a million times. I think it was that my need for answers outweighed the misgivings I had about being there. Still, sitting in my idling car, I wondered if I should have listened to my mother when she begged me not to go, lest I end up like my father, a victim of violence. She had asked why I was so blind to the dangers of the world, as he was, always seeking the good in everyone. Look where it had gotten him! Look where it had gotten us! We were a family without a husband or a father. Victims of the kind of senseless hate crime that most people only read about. A tragedy from which there would be no return to the good life we once knew.
* * *
A LITTLE OVER two months had passed since August 5, when my father and five other Sikhs were executed in our peaceful Wisconsin temple by a self-avowed white supremacist. Two of the victims were brothers, both with families and young children. The only woman killed left behind two teenage boys. Others had suffered grave injuries. Lt. Brian Murphy, the heroic police officer who was cornered by the killer and shot fifteen times at close range, survived by the grace of God. Baba Punjab Singh, a Sikh priest, a husband, and a father, was shot in the head and is still in a coma, likely never to regain consciousness.
From the start I’d been haunted by the question of “Why?” I wondered about it day and night. I couldn’t ask the killer because he was dead. So who could tell me why he had chosen our place of worship? Why he’d gone after such peaceful people—men, women, and children whose religion was based on the practice of harmony and equality for all people? And yes, I’ll admit it, I asked myself the question, “Why us?” Why had we been put through this hell? Because we had brown skin and wore turbans? Because we were mistaken for Muslims? The Taliban? ISIS? Because people were uninformed about who we were and where we came from? Although others ascribed to the theory that the shooter was targeting Islam, I thought it was as likely he chose our temple because it was open to everyone and secreted behind the crest of a hill. A soft target, if you will. But even if it were true that he mistook us for Muslims, how did that change the tragedy of innocent people murdered because they were different from the shooter’s idea of what America should look like? Would such an act be somehow less horrifying, or more justifiable, if the victims read the Quran and worshipped Allah?
I remembered going to Dad’s gas station after September 11 to support him in case of any misunderstandings. His English wasn’t good enough to explain that we were not terrorists, or even Muslim. It felt strange having to differentiate ourselves back then, but ignorance about Islam and the backlash against Muslims after the terrorists identified as such made me feel as if I had to explain who we were. We were Sikhs who loved our adopted country and whose hearts were broken just like everyone else’s by the attack. I discovered then that a little education went a long way to understanding. Our customers did ask questions about our faith and our homeland and we answered all of them with the same respect with which they were asked. Luckily, we didn’t need to defend ourselves. Dad had taught by example during his time here. His customers knew his heart. If only the shooter had been able to know my father, to know our people, he and the others might still be with us.
Was I angry? Hell yes. My anger was eating me alive. The head of our family had been violently taken and we were all struggling to find our places in this new and terrible reality. Everything was different now. My mother didn’t want to live and my brother seethed with rage and bitterness. Time hadn’t healed my grief or frustration either. I didn’t know how much longer I could control the feelings I had locked inside, but I couldn’t continue to wallow in cynicism and gloom. That would be a stain on my father’s legacy. It went against everything he stood for, all that he was.
I was always surprised at how little people knew about the Sikh faith. Sikh means “learner,” and our religion teaches us that teaching and learning, and learning and teaching, are the basis for our lives. We worship in the Gurudwara, “the door leading to God.” Our theology is based on love, equality, and service to God and all others. Many Sikh men wear turbans and have beards in honor of our cultural and religious heritage. In India, the turban is a sign of valor. But, especially since Osama bin Laden, the turban has become an object of enmity in America. People see it and think terrorist, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Maintaining uncut hair is an expression of accepting God’s will, and the turban is a symbol of our commitment to our faith. A man in America who is wearing a turban is almost without exception an Indian Sikh, and those bearded, brown-skinned men are less likely to commit violence than just about anyone on earth. They’re much more apt to take in stray dogs or deliver meals to homeless people living on the streets.
Ours is a gentle, benevolent faith. We believe that everyone is equal before one Creator and that a good life is lived truthfully and in service to others. Our scriptures don’t dwell on what happens after death but focus on our earthly duties. From an early age, we are encouraged to live as sant-sipahi, those who strike a balance of cultivating spirituality while also contributing socially to our communities. We are bound by the Golden Rules of our religion, as taught by Guru Nanak Dev, the first Sikh Guru: Kirat Karo—work hard and honestly; Vand Chhako—share what you have with those who are less fortunate; Naam Jappo—always remember God throughout the day.
Perhaps most importantly, our scriptures tell us that forgiveness is the only way to heal. My father was a student of the Guru Granth Sahib, our Holy Book, which we interpret as the living word of God. Dad strived every day to follow Sikh principles. I know he forgave his killer before he took his dying breath, but I needed answers to be able to get to that place.
* * *
WAITING FOR ARNO to arrive, I pictured my mother’s face as she pleaded with me not to go. She had aged considerably in the short time since my father’s murder. Grief had cut deep lines in her skin, and her once lustrous brown eyes were dull above moons of dusky shadows. Her suffering was so potent that sometimes it seemed to seep from her pores. She had lost the only man she ever loved, her husband of nearly forty years, the father of her two children. With him went her faith in the sanctity of our adopted country—a place she and my father loved so much that, as new immigrants, they’d erected a flagpole in our front yard and flew the red, white, and blue every day until my father’s death. The irony was inescapable. My father, an American patriot, a proud immigrant who moved his young wife and two small boys from their poor farming town in India and assimilated into Midwestern culture through hard work and community service, murdered because his skin was brown and he wore a turban.
How could I not seek answers for that?
As my mother begged me to reconsider my meeting, my wife, Jaspreet, looked on, her brow creased with concern. “You have our children to think about, Pardeep,” she said softly. Yes, two kids and a third on the way. Jaspreet was just weeks shy of her due date. I knew what she and Mom were thinking. I had never met this man with the violent racist past. How could I be sure he really had rehabilitated himself? Once a white supremacist, always a white supremacist, right? Yes, that was their fear, and maybe mine, too.
So what was I doing here? Jaspreet and Mom had been right to question my judgment. My introduction to Arno was through email. Anything I knew about him I’d learned second- and thirdhand and from searching his name on the internet. How did I know I wasn’t walking into an ambush? Arno was one of the founders of the same racist skinhead group that my father’s killer belonged to. He had disavowed the group years earlier, but what was the point of taking the risk? What was I going to ask him? Mom had wondered, tears welling up in her eyes. What could he say that would matter? Dad was dead and nothing was going to bring him back.
What remained of my resolve was melting away with each swish of the wipers. How could I subject my family to more fear and uncertainty than they were already feeling? To what end? Mom and Jaspreet were right. This had been a crazy idea.
I threw the car into drive. Just as I did—as if on cue—a tall, lanky man dressed in dark clothing and a hoodie covering his head walked out of the mist. Holding my foot on the brake, I watched as he crossed the street. I didn’t think he could see me, not in the dark and the rain. I figured it had to be Arno, and when he ducked into the Thai restaurant I was certain it was. Was it by chance that he appeared at the exact moment I was preparing to leave? My Sikh religion taught that all things happen according to the will of God. I remembered reading an analogy comparing the Sikh philosophy of fate to the orbiting of the earth. Although the earth revolves around and is influenced by the sun, it also has its own motion. So whatever it was that brought me here, I thought, the next move was mine.
I shifted back into park, turned off the engine, and stepped out into the street.
For once in my life, I was actually on time. I took my usual table by the window and ordered a pot of tea. I was nervous as shit. I could barely guide the tea from the pot into the cup without spilling it on the table. I didn’t know exactly why Pardeep wanted to talk, except that it had to do with the Sikh temple shooting. What was I going to say? That I was sorry about his father and the others who were massacred by someone who, more than likely, had been influenced by me? I was drowning in sorrow, but what could that possibly mean to him? How would I explain the twisted ideology that led a member of my former racist skinhead crew to that sacred place in the quiet Milwaukee suburb of Oak Creek with the intention of such violence? Or the misplaced rage that drove him to fire at the innocent people inside? If that was what this grieving son was looking for, giving him answers was the least I could do.
I had been atoning for my history of hatred for almost two decades, and it never got easier to acknowledge the dreadful things I did in the name of saving my race. Speaking the truth about white supremacy and the people who adopted the hateful philosophy was part of my self-imposed penance for having drunk the Kool-Aid myself as a younger man. I didn’t practice hate anymore. My heart was pure and my only intention was to promote the basic goodness of humanity and try to prevent other young people from making the same terrible mistakes I had.
I was certain Pardeep would question the genuineness of my transformation from violent racist to peace activist, an inevitability whenever I talked about my past. I always answered the same: “I’ve given the world a reason to mistrust me. I don’t blame you for questioning my motives or my sincerity. By all means, scrutinize what I do.” Answering for my past sins had become my mission, my full-time job, my whole life. I’d traveled around the country and the world talking about my life after hate in an effort to encourage harmony among all people.
But this was different. I was about to meet a man whose life had been tragically altered by someone with the belief system I once held. I was still plagued by nightmares about steel-toed boots and smashed skulls, and besieged by shame and guilt for the damage I did. Damage, I was sorry to say, that wouldn’t die with me but would endure for as long as there were people willing to embrace the hateful rhetoric I once preached at rallies and bellowed in white power songs I wrote and performed. People like Wade Michael Page, the man who murdered Pardeep’s father.
Waiting for Pardeep, I wondered if I should tell him that I’d doubled up on my sleeping pills after the temple attack because nighttime unleashed a lurking sense that I had a hand in causing it. Or that I lived in dread of the start of Racial Holy War because I was certain that was Wade Page’s goal and his martyrdom would encourage others to follow in his footsteps?
As the moments ticked by, I wondered if Pardeep would show. I worried that he wouldn’t, but I couldn’t blame him if he didn’t. I’m not sure that I would have the courage if I were in his shoes. Fucking hell, the guts it took for him just to reach out to me was awe-inspiring.
Keng, my favorite waitress, stopped by the table, breaking my train of thought. Was I waiting for someone? she asked, filling my cup with tea.
The bells on the restaurant door jangled. I looked up and saw a good-looking guy with brown skin, buzzed-off black hair, and tape over his left eye.
“Yeah,” I said. “I think that’s him now.”
When I walked through the door I saw Arno in a friendly conversation with an Asian waitress and sighed with relief. I couldn’t imagine the guy who killed my dad chatting with a “foreigner.” I walked over to the table and extended my hand. “Arno? I’m Pardeep.” Arno stood to greet me. He was much taller than he’d looked as I walked into the restaurant. His eyes twinkled with warmth, which surprised me. Somehow I expected empty or maybe even angry eyes. My mind raced with the things I wanted to ask him. What do you know about the assault on the temple? Do you know the shooter? What would motivate Page to do what he did?
I stood across from Arno, anxious to get the formalities out of the way and pursue what I was there for, but he spoke first. “Dude!” he cried. “What happened to your eye? Did you get into a brawl?” His voice sounded as if he chewed on gravel and his question caught me off guard. In my anxiety over our meeting, I’d completely forgotten about the tape over my left eye. Instinctively, I reached up and touched it. “Oh, this,” I said, taking a moment to explain.
I had injured my eye while I was bathing my little girl. A hook on the end of a loofah brush somehow ended up in the white of my eyeball and through my eyelid. “Just like a hooked fish,” I said. Arno cringed. “Fucking hell, man!” he said. “That’s awful! I thought I was the only fool clumsy enough for that kind of shit to happen!”
I said the emergency room doctor told me I was lucky to have sight in that eye. Arno’s concern seemed genuine. We sat down across from each other. He picked up the steaming pot from the table and poured me a cup of tea. I couldn’t help but notice the sleeves of tattoos covering his arms. The image of this inked-up tough guy with the rasping voice looking sympathetic and pouring Thai tea into delicate little cups struck me as paradoxical and almost funny. It would have seemed more normal if he’d grunted and cracked open a bottle of Bud. But I was about to learn that many things about Arno weren’t what they seemed.
Arno had this way about him that made me feel like I’d known him forever. We eased into a conversation about our backgrounds and our kids. We discovered that his teenage daughter, Autumn, and my eight-year-old girl, Amaris, were both a bit OCD and shared the quirky habit of having to have the toes of their socks line up perfectly straight. Arno was a little rough around the edges. He used the F bomb the way teenagers abuse the word “like,” yet he oozed kindness and compassion. When he talked about Autumn, he turned to mush. It seemed inconceivable to me that this warm, personable guy—someone who seemed hurt that I was hurt, who teared up talking about his child—was once the image of the monster that murdered my father.
As one cup of tea turned into two and three, I told Arno about my experience as a poor kid coming from India to live in America and how I’d thrown myself into school and sports as a way to integrate into my new culture. He shared that, unlike me, he was given all the opportunities of growing up in a white, middle-class American family but, at an early age, had chosen to shun them in favor of wreaking havoc on the streets.
Two hours passed and we were getting on so well that I almost felt embarrassed to ask what I’d come for. But I had to ask.
We talked about a lot of shit. Pardeep was one of the coolest guys I’d ever met. He was funny and smart and engaging—and the eye I could see was warm. I was struck by what seemed like a contradiction that he could be so chill when just a couple of months earlier his father had been murdered. At times over the course of the evening I had to remind myself why we were meeting. After two or three hours of nonstop talking about everything except what we were there for, he finally asked if I’d known Wade Michael Page.
I said I didn’t think I’d ever met Page, but I knew him intimately. Watching the news coverage, my heart sank, and I wondered if it was possible that I had recruited him into the racist skinhead movement. Photos showed him with the same steel-toed boots and racist tattoos that fed me when I lived in the white power world. I was certain he chose the temple because the people who worshipped there were a visual example of everything he believed was wrong with our country. When I discovered he was a “patched” member of Hammerskin Nation, the racist skinhead group I cofounded, I lay awake, asking myself, Did I unleash this monster on the world? But comparing the dates, I realized I left the movement long before he joined. That didn’t excuse me from accepting responsibility for what he did. If nothing else, I helped to create the environment that created Wade Michael Page, a regret that will follow me to my grave.
Page became an official member of Hammerskin Nation ten months before he stalked into the Sikh temple and systematically executed Pardeep’s father and the others. I knew the disdain that darkened Page’s heart. No one’s heart was darker than mine back when my life’s goal was to kick off a Racial Holy War, which was the goal of all white supremacists. I was a teenager when I heeded the radical racist battle cry, “Fourteen Words,” as composed by the late David Lane, one of the most ferocious racists in the history of the white power movement. “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.” Those words had been my belief system, my religion, and my reason for being until I was in my mid-twenties.
I immersed myself in racist dogma beginning at the age of sixteen, and by the time I was eighteen I had bragging rights as a founding member of the largest white power skinhead organization in the world. During those years, I fought with my bare hands and steel-toed boots and thrashed strangers for the sole reason that their skin was darker than mine. The enemy was anyone who we decided threatened our people. Once, I pummeled a man because I suspected he was gay until he was limp and whimpering; then, as an encore, I fed him my boots while my crew whistled and cheered. The only difference between Wade Page and me was that I hadn’t murdered anyone, at least not that I knew of.
I told Pardeep that, during my time in the trenches, I’d reeled in hundreds of street warriors by dangling the promise of “a whiter and brighter world.” I’d influenced thousands more with racist lyrics I composed and performed as the frontman for a notorious white power band, Centurion. As ashamed as I was to admit it, back then it warmed my heart to stomp across a stage and see dozens of fellow skinheads gesturing at me with straight-armed Nazi salutes and shouting “Sieg Heil!” Hail Victory! My band’s claim to fame was that our crowds were so violent that someone was always carried away in an ambulance. I fed my followers anti-foreigner, anti-black, anti-gay, anti-Semitic, anti-anyone-who-didn’t-fit-into-our-crude-worldview propaganda with the same zeal as anyone fighting for a righteous cause. “Those people”—just like the people in the Sikh temple—were considered fair game in our war to save our endangered white race.
I explained to Pardeep that the only way out of the quagmire of racial prejudice was practice. We practice tennis, or piano, or writing to become familiar with it. The more we practice something, the more natural it becomes. It was no different with hate. Wade Page practiced it until he was so twisted and miserable that only homicide followed by suicide seemed to make sense. The antidote was getting people to practice loving kindness, I said. That had become my life’s mission.
Page was an asshole, just like I had been. I was just sorry he didn’t get to experience the acts of kindness and compassion that had helped me to turn my life around. It might have helped him to realize—as I did—before he resorted to killing others that his racist beliefs were bullshit and his hatred was killing him.
Pardeep listened intently. Our talk had helped him make sense of the senselessness of his father’s death. “But how do I move forward from it?” he asked. I was afraid of the question. Afraid I might break down and cry.
I said I often raised the subject of “continuance” in my talks. I believed that all the actions we took in our lives had reactions—even after we were gone. Everything he’d described about his father—his love of family, the dedication to his community, his fierce determination to achieve the American dream—could be used for good. “Your father could live on through your work,” I said.
Yes, Pardeep said. After the shooting he and his family had brainstormed ways they could refocus the tragedy for good. From those conversations had emerged an organization he named Serve 2 Unite, whose purpose it was, in the spirit of Sikhism, to promote understanding and peaceful coexistence for all people. That was a big task, I said, smiling, and it was the same message I had in mind when I founded my nonprofit, Life After Hate, three years earlier. I’d recruited a team of other former white supremacists to my board, and we could barely keep up with the demand for our services.
Maybe Pardeep and I could join together sometime to promote the message.
“Wouldn’t that be something? A brown Sikh and a former racist skinhead, together, talking about unity and oneness.”
Pardeep seemed to dig the idea.
Copyright © 2018 by Arno Michaelis and Pardeep Singh Kaleka