The following article by Ishaan Tharoor was in the February 27, 2017 Washington Post’s Today’s World View e-newsletter:
To most Americans, a shooting that took place last Wednesday will be remembered as just another incident of gun violence in a country where homicides are tragically commonplace and where far too many disturbed loners have ready access to firearms.
To many Indians, though, the murder of Srinivas Kuchibhotla in a suburban Kansas town was the harshest warning yet about the reality of President Trump’s America.
Kuchibhotla, an aviation systems engineer at satellite navigation company Garmin, was having an after-work drink with his friend and colleague Alok Madasani at their regular bar in Olathe, a town 20 miles southwest of Kansas City. The duo, Indian nationals who both received their masters degrees in the United States and were on valid visas, were confronted by 51-year-old Adam Purinton, who started hectoring them with ethnic slurs.
“He asked us what visa are we currently on and whether we are staying here illegally,” said Madasani to the New York Times. “We didn’t react. People do stupid things all the time.”
But an enraged Purinton returned with a shotgun and opened fire, killing Kuchibhotla, 32, and injuring Madasani and Ian Grillot, an onlooker who intervened in defense of the Indian men. Eyewitness accounts suggest Purinton yelled at the pair to “get out of my country.”
Purinton was arrested at another restaurant in Missouri after telling an employee there that he needed a place to hide because he had just shot some “Middle Easterners.” While some news reports painted Purinton as a mentally troubled man with an alcohol problem, the racial undertones of his actions are unmissable.
The shooting led to anguish and anger both in India and among the South Asian diaspora in the United States, with many linking Kuchibhotla’s senseless death to the xenophobic populism of the Trump campaign.
“There is a kind of hysteria spreading that is not good because so many of our beloved children live there,” said Venu Madhav, a relative of Kuchibhotla, to India’s ANI news agency.
Indians rank among the fastest-growing immigrant populations in the United States, but there are signs they could face tougher times under Trump. The White House is reportedly keen on curtailing the H-1B work visa program that has enabled tens of thousands of Indian nationals like Kuchibhotla to work for American tech companies. Trump’s chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon, one of the architects of the president’s “America First” doctrine, previously articulated his dismay with the way in which South Asians supposedly dominate Silicon Valley.
We don’t know right now whether any of this informed Purinton’s criminal actions. But the shooting has deepened the fears of many South Asians — and other minorities living in the United States — over the racial tensions taking hold.
“The situation seems to be pretty bad after Trump took over as the U.S. president,” said Kuchibhotla’s distraught father to local media in India. “I appeal to all the parents in India not to send their children to the United States in the present circumstances.”
The Trump administration dismissed any suggestion of a link between the shooting, which could be justifiably defined as a terror attack, and Trump’s rhetoric. “Any loss of life is tragic,” said White House press secretary Sean Spicer when pressed on the matter at a Friday briefing. “But I’m not going to get into, like, that kind of — to suggest that there’s any correlation I think is a bit absurd.”
Of course, there have been racially-motivated shootings in the past. The hideous 2013 slaughter at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, carried out by a known white supremacist, took place under former president Barack Obama’s watch. The difference between now and then is that the Trump campaign rose in part through the unleashing of xenophobic passions and with the gleeful support of white nationalists.
It seems incumbent on the Trump administration to be even more outspoken than its predecessors on the dangers of domestic terrorism. But while Trump tweets incessantly about jihadist threats around the world, the White House has remained rather silent about the violence carried out by white nationalists against minorities, including a deadly attack on a mosque in Canada last month. So far, he has not tweeted anything about the Olathe shootings.
A few years back, Indian-American journalist Anand Giridharadas wrote a book on Mark Stroman, a Texan who walked into a Dallas mini-mart and shot Raisuddin Bhuiyan, a Bangladeshi employee, because the latter was a brown-skinned Muslim. It was ten days after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 and Stroman was convinced he was defending the homeland. (Bhuiyan, miraculously, survived and went on to forgive his would-be murderer.) After the Olathe shooting, Giridharadas took to Twitter and drew parallels between what provoked Stroman then and the political climate of the present.
“Toxic rhetoric has contributed to scapegoating immigrants and religious minorities,” said Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) in a statement on Friday where he linked Purinton’s alleged xenophobia to Trump’s politics of walls and bans. (Ellison narrowly lost the leadership battle for the Democratic National Committee over the weekend.) He went on: “While irresponsible leaders rarely own up to their dog whistles, toxic talk from public figures always leads to violence.”
Whatever the case, a hard-working, decent man is now dead and his family’s dreams shattered. Kuchibotla’s widow, Sunayana Damala, made a moving statement about her husband at the headquarters of his employers on Friday.
“We’ve read many times in newspapers of some kind of shooting happening,” she said. “And we always wondered, how safe [are we]?”
Damala went on: “I need an answer. I need an answer from the government. … What are they going to do to stop this hate crime?” Given the president’s silence on the issue, the answer seems to be not much.