As I was reeling from the news of the Orlando shooting this weekend, I had an important conversation with a friend about the nature of the tragedy.
Quite matter-of-factly, I referred to the tragedy as a terrorist attack against the LGBT community.
“Well,” said my friend, “I don’t see it as just that. I mean, it is, of course, an attack at a gay nightclub and against LGBT people. But I see it as an attack on all Americans.”
I could sense the deeply well-meaning intent in my friend’s words. However I was immediately reminded of a clip I had seen of the gay British reporter Owen Jones, who angrily walked out of Sky News when his fellow reporters refused to acknowledge the attack as singling out the LGBT community. So I asked my friend the same question that Jones asked his fellow reporters: “If the gunman had walked into a synagogue and killed 50 Jews, would you not call that an anti-Semitic terrorist attack?” “Oh, I see what you mean …” my friend said.
The impulse to identify with the victims of terrorism, regardless of their religions or orientations or disabilities, is a noble one. When twisted people murder innocents in the name of hatred and fear, we must emphasize our commonalities, our shared human decency. But I can’t help but notice a critical insight missing in this loving support.
We are all searching for how to best respond to terrorism in America. This attack was, in addition to an anti-LGBT hate crime, a terrorist act fueled by Islamic State ideology and abetted by the ready availability of assault weapons in our society. Most decent Americans did not jump to political rhetoric on hearing the tragic news. Most simply grieved together with the victims’ families. Most expressed heartfelt support of those affected in the LGBT community over this attack. Most expressed outrage over the ready availability of lethal weapons to potential terrorists, and the need for legislative reform.
But in all the various kinds of support and outrage from the decent Americans, there is a danger of something getting lost. The Orlando attack was, first and foremost, an act of terrorism against the LGBT community. This fact in no way mitigates the importance of addressing terrorism, religious extremism and gun violence. It in no way diminishes the truth that an attack on any American is an attack on us all. But what this country, and the world, must do — before the expressions of universal grief and calls to various political responses — is to bear witness to the enormity of grief and pain echoing throughout the LGBT community. Only when we acknowledge one community’s pain and need for healing can we all truly act together to prevent this kind of tragedy from recurring.
In the Jewish tradition, we emphasize over and over the importance of lifting up the cause of “the stranger, the orphan and the widow” in establishing a just and decent society. These three typologies collectively represent all those who are most vulnerable in society. It is only when we know and refuse to shunt aside the stranger, the orphan, the widow — when we can name them and tell the story of their lives and respond to their needs — that we truly become a loving society. The goal of haters is to shunt aside the “other,” the “queer” ones, the ones who look, act or speak differently. The haters and terrorists fear those whose difference might challenge them to face their own moral shortcomings.
As Americans, we instinctively understand this about terrorists. And in our loving and very American way, we want to respond collectively as a society to hatred and fear. All too often, however, we are left feeling overwhelmed and powerless. The enormity of the problem and its causes here and abroad can paralyze us in our grief and outrage. We need this lesson from Judaism and Jewish historical experience: We must, first and foremost, lift up the cause, the identity and the community of the victims of each attack. Rather than change all of society at once, we must seek to clarify the unique pain and specific vulnerability of each community to ensure that the community is never harmed again.
When a Sikh temple was attacked by a white supremacist in 2012, that was an opportunity to address the needs and fears of the Sikh community in this country. When the terrorist Dylann Roof opened fire at a black Bible study group in Charleston in 2015, that was an opportunity for the nation to see the daily struggles of the black community and to galvanize support and action to ensure that racist violence against black Americans comes to an end. The more we understand the unique kinds of prejudices, hate speech and discrimination that each community must endure, the more we can respond to end the causes that can lead inexorably to terrorism.
To acknowledge and respond to the suffering of the targeted community in each attack is the most empowering response we can take in this new age of domestic terrorism. Ultimately, there are common lessons from all attacks, like the urgent need for better gun legislation. But each targeted group shows us all how we can become a stronger and more loving society.
In the LGBT community right now, we want to feel safe, loved and protected. We need to know that the vast majority of Americans see us in our unique struggle to find our place and our right to live without fear in this great country. At this moment in history, it is the LGBT community in general — and the Latino LGBT community in particular — that feels the most vulnerable in the wake of Orlando. The best, most American response to the reality of terrorism is to cherish those who hurt the most and act to protect them. In that act of love and justice, our collective spirit will truly overcome all hatred and fear.
Rabbi Gil Steinlauf is senior rabbi at Adas Israel Congregation, Washington DC’s oldest and largest Conservative synagogue.