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An enlightened approach to hate crimes

Palmeet Kaur, whose father was killed by a gunman at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin, attends a vigil on August 5.

Story highlights

  • Sikh doctor forgives teenagers who beat him and called him a terrorist
  • Amardeep Singh works with hate crime victims who display a different approach
  • Rather than jail time, he says, people who commit hate crimes can do community service
  • Singh: It's helpful for victims and perpetrators to overcome fears about each other

Prabhjot Singh, a turbaned Sikh doctor and Columbia University professor, was surrounded recently by a gang of teenagers on bicycles who beat him, fracturing his jaw. He says they called him a "terrorist" and "Osama."

His response: "If I could speak to my attackers," he said, "I would ask them if they had any questions, if they knew what they were doing. Maybe invite them to the gurdwara where we worship, get to know who we are."

Most people would be surprised by Dr. Singh's willingness to forgive and constructively engage his attackers. I am not. Like most Sikhs, I was taught at a young age about Bhai Ghaniya, a famous Sikh who would distribute food and water to wounded enemy soldiers. The lesson instilled was that the work of mending fences begins as soon as one can no longer harm you.

As a professional advocate working with Sikh hate crime victims for more than a decade since 9/11, I have consistently seen Sikhs move beyond the punitive bent of our criminal justice system and adopt a Sikh approach to addressing our attackers. The result is a decidedly Sikh-American brand of justice that produces more social benefit than the revolving-door criminal justice system in our country.

Members of the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin erect a sign on August 5, the first anniversary of a shooting in the temple

Take our work with Gurpreet Singh and Thomas Brand. Thomas worked at Marsh McLenan at the World Trade Center. He never had a chance to say goodbye to his colleagues who died there on 9/11. Traveling on trains made him scared and angry. He acted on his anger a year later by pushing Gurpreet on the Long Island Railroad, urging him to leave the train and calling him a "terrorist."

Thomas was stopped by an off-duty police officer, arrested, and eventually prosecuted. When it came time for sentencing, the prosecutor was ready to recommend jail time for Thomas.

Amardeep Singh

Gurpreet did not want that to happen. He saw a man in real pain who needed a lift up and not jail time. He asked that the prosecutor recommend Thomas engage in community service aimed at combating hate in a post 9/11 world.

Thomas was very nervous when he came to our office. He said he knew nothing about us and always thought we were "stern" and "angry." He said he was surprised that one of my colleagues was wearing shorts instead of pants. We got to know each other and eventually Thomas was standing with Gurpreet and me as we went to gurdwaras, Sikh houses of worship, collecting reports of bias against Sikhs.

All of us were better for the experience. Gurpreet and I had our own prejudices and fears of people who looked like "Joe America" and clearly Thomas had his own perceptions about us "turban folk" as well. Rather than allow him to spend time incarcerated in the overworked criminal justice system, we all found healing and became better people for it.

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