Ten years ago today, on September 15th, 2001, in Mesa, a suburb of Phoenix, Arizona, a Chevron gas station owner was on his way into work. Like all Americans, he had been shocked and saddened by the terrorist attacks which brought down the World Trade Centre in New York City.
He stopped at the local Costco and bought an American flag to display at his business, but he still felt the urge to do something more. Near the exit he spotted a Red Cross desk taking donations, he pulled out his wallet, emptied it of money, and donated $75 to a 9/11 victims fund. Later on that day, he would remark to his brother that he was considering travelling to New York City to help in the recovery effort. He never got the chance to commit that act of charity.
The man had purchased the gas station with money earned from several years worth of long, hard shifts driving a taxi in Los Angeles and San Francisco. He took care to make sure it was well-kept, and that day workers were on-site planting some grass and flowers. He stood beside one of the landscapers, talking casually in the hot afternoon sun. A truck approached from behind, he didn’t notice it, the driver rolled his window down. Three bullets from a .380 calibre gun struck the man in the back, he collapsed onto grass, struggling and clinging to life as the landscapers tried to help and called 911. He died before the ambulance came, leaving behind a wife and five children. The car drove off, its driver looking for more victims.
There were two more shootings that afternoon by the same driver, he missed both of his targets. When the police arrived at his mobile home, the driver emerged from his front door, draped in an American flag. He shouted at them, “I’m a patriot and American . . . I’m a damn American!” after the police arrested him and put him in the back of their patrol car, he told them: “How can you arrest me and let the terrorists run wild? I wish my punishment would be sending me to Afghanistan with a lot of [expletive] weapons.”
The shooter was Frank Silva Roque, an airplane mechanic who worked for Boeing. His coworkers recalled his angry diatribes against immigrants. Roque spoke about “those people” in the same fearful language that bigots of generations past spoke about his own immigrant ancestors. The hatred that fueled his shooting rampage had been building steadily for years, and what would ignite it was a catastrophic event, perpetuated by one of “the others” Roque viewed as the enemy. Terrorist or innocent civilian, they were all the same to him – if they weren’t Christian, or they were a non-white immigrant, they were the enemy.
Like his victim, Roque had been distraught about the 9/11 attacks. He had been crying uncontrollably the day of the attacks, and when he spoke to a colleague that evening he went on an emotional diatribe against Muslims. He made specific, violent threats when speaking to a waitress, such as his plan to go and shoot some “towel heads,” a reference to people he thought to be Muslim. So on the morning of September 15th, after chugging several cans of beer, Roque grabbed his firearm, got inside his truck and drove off to, in his words, seek “Revenge for 9/11″
When he killed the owner of the gas station, Roque believed that justice was served. In his mind he had done his patriotic duty by killing a Muslim. He was one-in-the-same as Bin Laden, because “they” were all secretly taking their orders from an authority greater than and foreign to the United States. A fear once espoused against the catholic faith his family came from over a century ago. He was incredibly wrong of course, but Roque was so far gone down the path of irrational xenophobia that it did not matter. Which is why it didn’t matter that his victim wasn’t even Muslim – he was an “other,” that is all it took.
Balbir Singh Sodhi immigrated to the United states with three of his brothers from India in the 1980s. They were trying to escape the persecution faced by members of the Sikh faith during that time, which would lead to the murder of thousands of Sikhs in Delhi in 1984. For Balbir, America was a safe haven – a place where the freedom to practice his family’s religion was guaranteed, and their personal safety was protected by law. He loved his new country and when he moved his family to Mesa, Arizona he became well-known as a friendly man who would always give candy to the children of his customers. His brother Rana would later recount that Balbir believed he was living the American dream, until that dream was robbed by another.
Frank Roque may never understand the ramifications of his revenge fantasy – to date he has shown no remorse and unsuccessfully claimed innocence during his trial due to an undiagnosed mental illness. He was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death, only later to have his conviction reduced to life in prison without parole. Roque may also have trouble comprehending the community response to the murder.
At the memorial service the Sodhi family was enveloped by three thousand mourners of all ethnicities and religions who came to pay their respects. A further ten thousand people personally sent letters of condolences.
To this day, Balbir’s life and story still resonates across the region. The mayor of Phoenix would skip out on the “highly politicized” 9/11 memorial services and ponder the meaning of that day on his own, specifically reflecting on Balbir’s life and tragic death. His picture still hangs on the walls of businesses around Mesa. When an Al Jazeera reporter stopped and took notice of one photo, a young man who must have been a child in 2001 stopped and spoke to him, unaware he was a journalist.
“He was a good guy,” the kid said to me without me asking. He then motions to the picture of Balbir.
“You knew him?” I asked.
“Oh, yeah, he used to give candy to the kids. We all liked him a lot. A really good guy.”
Even the mayor of Phoenix keeps the story in mind. Choosing to skip out on a “highly politicized” 9/11 rally this year to reflect on Balbir’s life instead. Instead of anger and violence, his family responded to his death with peace, striving to ensure no one else meets the same fate. When another elder Sodhi brother was tragically killed by a stray bullet while driving a cab in San Francisco, less than a year after Balbir’s death, his son Sukhwinder said to the media: “What are you going to do with anger? We like peace and we are a peaceful people”
In what was probably the biggest repudiation of Roque’s intentions, when Arizona built a 9/11 memorial, they included Balbir’s name. There, carved in stone, was the evidence that a peaceful Sikh man would forever be known as an American whose life was cut too short by blind hatred. And to this day, the family and community he was a part of, continues to love and breathe life into his memory.