Former US Attorney Jim Santelle Reflects on the Sikh Temple Shooting

Jul 26, 2017

It was five years ago on August 5th when a gunman walked into the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin in Oak Creek and killed six congregants and injured others. It was one of the worst religious hate crimes carried out in this country, but it also brought many disparate parts of Milwaukee together in support of the Sikh community.

Commemorations of the anniversary are planned over the next two weekends. Leaders of the Sikh Temple are planning a major observance on August 6th. But people of other faiths and in the secular community will mark the anniversary as well.

Jim Santelle was the US Attorney for the Eastern District of Wisconsin at the time of the shooting. He no longer holds public office, but he is playing a major role in planning the observances. Santelle says that the anniversary of the shooting is an opportunity for engagement, association, friendship, and involvement with the Sikh community.

"We not only think back about those times, but think forward," he says. "For me, and for many other people, this has been and remains a time of great association, great reflection on what happened, but also a recommission for what we should be about as a community."

Before the shooting, Santelle admits that he didn't know much about the Sikh religion and its communities throughout Wisconsin. "(The Sikh religion is) about service, it's about caring, it's about work, it's about ethics, and it's about this transcendent optimism that animates all the Sikh faith is all about. That has been a source of great educational insight for me.

"It also has been this wonderful new affiliation for me with a people that I suspect that absent this horrific event in August I probably would not have been associated with," he adds.

We not only think back about those times, but think forward. For me...this has been and remains a time of great association, great reflection on what happened, but also a recommission for what we should be about as a community.

There's no doubt that Santelle's experience with the community following the shooting is a now central part of him both personally and professionally. "All of these things happen without scripts and without plans and the need is always simply to respond as a human being as best you can to what the needs are of the community and also the expectations are for what we should be doing down the road," he says.

Santelle hopes that community at large will always remember and recognize what happened. He notes that to this day, the temple shooting remains one of the three most significant faith-related civil rights events in contemporary American history.

However, Santelle says knowing our history is not enough. "We need to use that information to make sure to the extent we can that the hate that animates those kinds of events...is not only addressed but pushed back."

One way to do that is through educating others and embracing diversity says Santelle. Through efforts and commemorations such as the events coming up the first weekend of August, Santelle hope that fellowship will be reignited throughout the whole community.

"The message of this is not just what happened, but also to ensure this doesn't happen again," says Santelle. "We need to appreciate the diversity of all of humanity and know that those folks are part of us - we are all together."

*Lake Effect invited Sikh leaders to participate in our interview, but scheduling conflicts prevented it.