Actions of a few not representative of the whole

Published 7:01 am Sunday, September 25, 2016

As students and community leaders listened to immigrants’ stories at Riverland Community College’s library Wednesday, the overall message was simple: It’s not easy to move to a new country and adapt to a different culture, and it takes time and help to do so.

Riverland students came together for a session to share immigrant stories less than a week after a terrorist attack less than 160 miles away.

As Austin celebrated its first Welcoming Week, we got to contrast the efforts to promote our community to be a welcoming place for all people with another round of fallout from a violent attack, this time one much closer to home.

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Last Saturday, a man police identified as Dahir Adan injured nine people in a “potential act of terrorism” at St. Cloud’s Crossroads mall.

It set off a firestorm of reactions, most of them stemming from him being a Somali-American Muslim and his potential ties to terrorism.

I’ll admit, my heart sank when the St. Cloud Times reported that he made references to Allah during the attack and asked at least one person whether they were Muslim.

My heart sank because I knew many people would limit this incident to those two facts: He asked people if they were Muslim and referenced Allah.

Predictably, the Islamic State group issued statements a few hours later calling Adan a “soldier of the Islamic State.” It became political fodder and social media debate based on those limited facts alone.

But each time there’s an attack, especially one in which the victim dies, I’m left longing to know the assailant’s story.

The knee-jerk reaction of many people is to latch onto the few facts, declare he was an Islamic extremist, post a Facebook rant and and then move onto the next.

We want this to play out like a crime drama television plot: The bad guy commits a crime, his motive is identified quickly, the good guys foil the next plot or catch another baddie, and then the credits roll.

But the real world often doesn’t include that kind of closure.

Adan was killed by Jason Falconer, an off-duty police officer from Avon. This essentially cuts off our knowledge of Adan’s motivation to mere guesses, clues and whatever conclusions can be made from evidence and stories.

This leaves a hole: Can we ever know his true motivation? Probably not.

This leaves us without true closure, and it leaves so many questions.

The Associated Press reported Adan was a recent college graduate, a high school honor student and that he had little more than a traffic citation on his criminal record.

The Associated Press reported:

Those who know Adan, 20, say he was a calm, cool guy with a good head on his shoulders. They are trying to come to terms with what happened and figure out what pushed him to violence.

“We have a thirst for answers,” said Abdul Kulane, a community advocate in the St. Cloud area. “What was his motivation? What happened?”

Instead, we are left with reports of people in Minnesota, where we boast of “Minnesota nice,” waving confederate flags in Somali neighborhoods along with other fears of retaliation against individuals who have no more connection for Adan than sharing he race.

Minnesota nice indeed.

Granted, the St. Cloud community has also come together in many acts of unity, but the retaliation has been just as swift, even with a Lonsdale business owner posting a sign that says, “Muslims Get Out.”

Stories of such retaliatory efforts being fueled by such limited knowledge leads me to another question: Does action like this simply contribute to the problem?

Regardless of whether Adan was an Islamic State-state trained terrorist, a mere sympathizer or just an individual fighting his own personal demons, we should be left asking: Did our societal norms contribute as much as other factors? Instead of passing the blame onto people whose only connection to Adan is to share his race or religion, we should really ask ourselves if we can do more to promote a culture of understanding and acceptance.

Because retaliation will likely only drive more individuals to lash out.

After reading about the retaliation after the stabbings, I looked back over a story the Herald ran on Welcoming Week. Austin Mayor Tom Stiehm issued a proclamation to promote a spirit of acceptance and welcoming: “By working together, we can achieve greater prosperity and make our community the kind of place where diverse people from around the world feel valued and want to put down roots.”

The at Wednesday’s immigration talk, RCC President Dr. Adenuga Atewologun talked about coming to the United States from Nigeria to seek his master’s and doctorate to find “a land that really welcomes immigrants and appreciates the importance of diversity.”

But, he added it takes people of all backgrounds coming together to be successful.

“Indeed, it takes a village,” Atelowgun said. “Coming together is much better.”

In order for people to be comfortable putting down their roots in Austin, in Minnesota and across the country, we need to start with openness and empathy. We need to remember that the actions of a few do not represent the masses.