Arizona Republic
May 18, 2008


Author: Bill Goodykoontz, The Arizona Republic

The American dream is a somewhat nebulous idea, but for many people, its appeal is concrete.

Typically, it involves making your own way, seeking your fortune without the hindrance of government, religion or any other institution that can prevent you from creating the life you want. It holds a special attraction for immigrants seeking a better life, and the Sodhi family of Gilbert was no different.

For Rana Singh Sodhi, the dream remains alive, despite enduring a nightmare. His brother, Balbir Singh Sodhi, was gunned down in Mesa on Sept. 15, 2001 -- the nation's first post-9/11 victim of a hate crime. (Balbir Sodhi wore a long beard and turban as prescribed by his Sikh faith; his killer apparently mistook him as being from the Middle East.) Another brother was murdered in San Francisco less than a year later. Friends have been assaulted because of how they look; one man's attackers yelled, "Go back to where you came from!" as they shot him.

Rana Sodhi's story is at the heart of A Dream in Doubt, a presentation of the PBS series Independent Lens. It is in part a crime story, in part an update on the high-profile case, but, at its best, it is a voice for education and tolerance -- crucial ingredients in a post-9/11 world, yet ingredients that get little or no media coverage.

"When you share with somebody, when you talk with somebody, then you learn a lot of things," Rana Sodhi said.

Indeed, since Balbir's murder, Rana Sodhi has been active in community outreach, helping to promote understanding of his faith. One of the film's most effective scenes finds him speaking to his son's new classroom, explaining his family's beliefs and traditions. The children ask questions adults wouldn't: Do you always wear your turban? Do you celebrate Halloween? (Yes to both.) Sodhi's eagerness to explain is immediately winning.

Yet, despite news organizations' promises after 9/11 for more-detailed coverage overseas, little beyond the war on terror gets much play in the media.

"I do feel the mass media have not stimulated understanding on subjects, such as personal rights and religious persecution, that emerged from the 9/11 tragedy," said Craig Allen, a journalism professor at Arizona State University and TV-news expert.

There are reasons, of course.

"The root of the problem is the pace of life and short attention spans of the people the American news media must reach," he said. "People don't have the time to contemplate 9/11 6 1/2 years after the fact.

"Contributing to fallen expectations has been a downturn in the economics of the news media. In today's world, if newspapers, TV, radio and online sources dote on a past tragedy and don't detail gut-level crises, such as those $100 gas fill-ups, they go out of business."

Sean McLaughlin, chief meteorologist and news anchor for Channel 5 (KPHO), said media often are placed in a no-win situation.

"In the broadcast world, reporting on racial or religious intolerance is just an endless minefield for the reporter or station involved," he said. "No matter how balanced or fair you think the piece is, someone or some group will find fault and label you as a racist, liberal, conservative, anti-American, you name it. It's because some media-company owners have forced their politics onto their own airwaves. Now, most in the general public believe we all have some sort of agenda, instead of the basic principle of showing both sides.

"No matter the intention, I believe this is why the mainstream media does little on these types of stories, which could lead to an even greater understanding of what the general public does not understand or know. When those Muslim scholars got kicked off the plane in Minnesota back in 2006, would it have made a difference if people knew even the basics of Islam, like men stand and pray out loud each afternoon? Or would they allow their fears, or fear of the unknown, to take over? Doesn't intolerance equal ignorance?"

Some stories have been done, said Fran Matera, an ASU professor who covers media-portrayal issues in her classes. Just not enough.

"Hate crimes ... are usually rolled into typical 'If it bleeds, it leads' scattershot storytelling of everyday news," she said. "The larger landscape on which these stories play out falls away due to tight deadlines, micro sound bites or no space. Media can certainly raise awareness, and they have done so. But sustaining that awareness is the challenge."

That's where A Dream in Doubt comes in. It concerns itself more with the day-to-day effects of 9/11, particularly among people whose lives and faith are not always readily understood by their neighbors. Obviously in Balbir Sodhi's case, the results were tragic.

Frank Roque was convicted of Sodhi's murder. Tapes of police questioning him show him to be disturbed by the 9/11 attacks; his defense was that he was mentally ill. The film includes a jailhouse interview with Roque, as well as footage of coverage of the crime and the trial.

"It was very important to me to give Frank Roque a fair shake in the film and really show all the different sides of what he was experiencing," filmmaker Tami Yeager said.

And she does; the point of the film, after all, is not to simply single out one case.

"Balbir was the first (victim)," Yeager said. "He wasn't the last, but he was the first. Phoenix wasn't alone. This story just acts as a symbol of other things that were happening in this country, because it was happening all over."

In retrospect, although it's not very comforting, that's probably not a surprise.

"Someone is always a target for mindless hatred," Matera said. "At some point, every ethnic group has suffered at the hands of another. Time usually proves to be an ally, as in, this too shall pass."

That has been true to some extent for Rana Sodhi, who now owns a gas station as well as an Indian restaurant in Mesa. The threats haven't disappeared, but they're fewer and further between.

Talking about his brothers' deaths for the film was sometimes difficult, but it got somewhat easier over time.

"In the beginning, it's very painful when you're talking (about) all those things happening," he said. "Especially the 911 tape, my sister-in-law calling 911 (the tape is played during the film). That's very emotional."

Yet to talk to Rana Sodhi or to watch him in the film is to realize how resilient he is. The title, in fact, is misleading. Rana Sodhi is unshakably optimistic about the American dream. There is no room for doubt. One can't help but wonder how that can be.

"Most of the people thinking that, they don't see what it's like outside America," he said. "They don't have any experience what people do in other countries. I've been in this country, and I know what's best in this country and what other countries have. ... I think that's the only thing that makes me an optimist."

Yet that's what he is.

"He still amazes me," Yeager said. "If anything, when I started the film, I was cynical. ... I felt like this 'United we stand' language was more like 'Divided we fall.' ... I learned from Rana what it means to be an American."

'A Dream in Doubt'

10 p.m. Tuesday on Channel 8 (KAET).

Reach Goodykoontz at 602-444-8974 or

Edition: Final Chaser
Section: A & E
Page: E1
Dateline: AZ
Record Number: pho103041150