Originally Published in The Huffington Post on 9.10.2012
Less than one month after of the massacre of Sikhs in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, Mayor Tonya Hoeffel of Garrett, Indiana has further offended the Sikh community. Mayor Hoeffel walked into a local convenience store, observed pamphlets about the Sikh religion on the store counter, and picked them up before throwing them in the trash bin.
When manager and part-owner of the store Kulwinder Singh Nagra asked Mayor Hoeffel why she threw out the informational pamphlets, she replied, “It’s against my beliefs. This is against Christianity.”
Although Mayor Tonya Hoeffel has since apologized, her behavior demands more thoughtful analysis and response. We must demand more from our elected officials and hold them accountable for their actions.
This is especially important because our elected officials maintain enormous influence. Whether we are speaking of Paul Ryan’s fitness regime or Barack Obama’s eating habits, it is clear that we hold the lifestyles and personalities of our elected officials in high regard.
We also hold them to a higher standard.
It is unacceptable for any of our political representatives to act with intolerance and bigotry, and when they do so, it is our responsibility to speak up and make our voices heard.
In the current context, political speech has become rife with hateful vitriol that alienates minority communities on various levels, including race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, class, ethnicity, and nationality. The recent rise of hate violence in this country seems to bear a direct correlation to the narrow-minded and intolerant political discourse. This divisive rhetoric will continue to fragment this nation until we take ownership and begin calling out our elected officials to stop dividing and start uniting.
After being called out by the local media, Mayor Tonya Hoeffel met with Kulwinder Singh Nagra to apologize for her mistake. She explained: “I personally believe if you do something wrong, you go to that person. I apologized for offending them [Sikhs]. I said I know they are a peaceful people.”
Nagra accepted her apology and offered his forgiveness. Nagra bears absolutely no ill will towards the mayor of Garrett, Indiana — nor should he. Yet this does not mean that our elected officials can erase acts of intolerance with simple words of apology.
As a political official charged with upholding American principles, Mayor Hoeffel’s intolerant actions violated the values of the Constitution and the laws of her state. Her actions have also offended Sikh Americans, a community that has made major contributions to the U.S. economy for over a century and continues to enrich American society in all walks of life.
We urge the mayor of Garrett, Indiana to rectify her actions by educating herself on the group of America citizens she has offended and take the time to learn about her neighbors and then educate her fellow neighbors.
Indeed, if Mayor Hoeffel had thrown out the educational materials of another larger religious group, calls for her impeachment would be heard around the country.
We request Mayor Hoeffel to turn her mistake into an educational opportunity. By reading the materials she threw away, meeting with the local Sikh community, and passing her new experiences on to her constituents, Ms. Hoeffel could set a positive example for all of us around the country. These simple actions would go a long way in furthering the American way of way of life.