In the days after Dylann Roof entered a historic black Charleston church and shot and killed nine people came the realization that we had just seen a combination of two terrible American phenomena -- a mass shooting and a race-related hate crime.
But it took several days for that reality to set in. First, a series of conservative lawmakers insisted that the shooting was an expression of anti-Christian bias and an attack on believers everywhere. Then, there was the semantic debate about whether or not the Charleston shooting was an act of domestic terror. The murders seem to fit the precise definition of the word terrorism and until this weekend had much in common with most of the acts of terrorism committed in the United States since Sept. 11, 2001, according to an analysis by the New American Foundation.
At points, the national conversation moved where it always does in these situations. Was Roof mentally ill? Did he obtain his weapons legally? Had any of the nation's gun control laws done any good at all? Finally, there was a kind of slinking away from all of those topics by previously vocal public figures, toward a fixation on the future of the Confederate flag in South Carolina. The flag lost its place at the state capitol, largely due to the efforts of the state's Republican governor, Nikki Haley. Lost in the discussion were the range of sentiments expressed by Roof in his manifesto that bear similarities to what Donald Trump is saying on the campaign trail about crime, race and immigration, how many people share some part of them (in most cases minus the violence), think and then vote accordingly. (Haley has since drawn a line between Trump's divisive rhetoric and the potential for what happened in Charleston.)
This week, already, what is in peril of being lost is this: American gun policy, mental health care and spending, criminal justice policy, national security investigations and practices all continue to largely exist and function as if these are always totally distinct challenges. The questions before the country now are not just which terms to use to describe this incident, its victims, its perpetrator or even what aspects of the attack to emphasize, but is our divided way of thinking and talking about these incidents and trying to prevent them serving the country well?
Instead, in the hours after the Orlando mass shooting and news that 49 people were killed (this number doesn't include the shooter) and more injured when a gunman opened fire inside a gay Orlando nightclub, the by-now-familiar cycle we saw after Charleston has happened at warp speed. People are basically talking over one another now, on a grand national scale. Once again, there are lots of preferred and competing explanations for a massive crime.
In the last 72 hours, a gay British journalist has stormed off a television program in protest of what he said is the intentional effort to minimize the role of anti-gay bias played in the shooter's motivations. The shooter did, after all, select a gay club for his rampage. The s ex-wife and father of the shooter, Omar Mateen, have both said that the shooter routinely expressed anti-gay sentiments. And more recently new information has emerged indicating that Mateen himself used gay dating apps and spent time at the very club where he later killed 49 people.
Trump has publicly insisted there is only one way to describe the situation in Orlando. This is "radical Islam" at work, Trump says. Trump is also quick to note that he was right to call for a temporary ban on Muslim immigration, thanks for noticing. On Monday, Trump reinforced his moment of shoulder-brushing by stating that presidents do have discretionary authority to bar certain individuals from the country. It turns out that he's at least partially right.
Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton has criticized Trump's self-congratulations about a religious test for immigration to a country founded, in part, on the principle of the free practice of one's religion. She also had some things to say about Trump's insistence on the use of the term "radical Islam." And both the Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity -- an Islamic LGBT organization -- and the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) have stepped forward in press conferences and issued written public statements to express or remind other Americans that this one man, the American-born son of Afghan immigrants and a practicing Muslim, is not representative of the world's at least 1.6 billion Muslims. Nor, each of the groups said, do they condone his actions or support his terroristic aims.
In short: this should not be blamed on the shooter's faith.
Likewise gun enthusiasts, gun-rights activists and various reporters have accurately pointed out that Mateen, like most of the recent perpetrators behind America's many mass shootings, obtained his guns legally after passing a federal background check. Mateen had no criminal record -- what is supposed to be an almost-absolute bar against gun possession -- at all. So, the system did not work. Why then, these people have asked, does it exist at all?
Finally, in 2014, the Orlando Sentinel compiled a special report about what the paper called Florida's "mental-illness epidemic," that also seems relevant here. At the time, Florida ranked 49th among the states in mental health care spending. One mental health program administrator quoted in the story said this plainly:
About 70 percent of the people who need mental-health treatment in this state can’t get it. Either the resources aren’t available or, sometimes, people can’t figure out how to navigate the system to find the resources. We have to do a better job.
It seems unlikely that a person in his or her right mind would go into a club and kill 49 people whom they do not appear to know or have a personal conflict. Still, national mental health organizations, researchers and reporters have already stepped forward to remind Americans that mental illness and violence do not necessarily go hand in hand. In fact, one Johns Hopkins University study released this month found that the combination is rare and not often a feature of mass shootings. Or course rare and never are not the same thing.
At least two people close to the shooter told The Washington Post that he was becoming increasingly unbalanced. And several conservative politicians including Florida Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) have indicated that perhaps the Orlando mass shooting signals a need to "tighten" or alter the background check process, with particular attention to keeping weapons out of the hands of the mentally ill, The Washington Post reported Sunday. Will Democrats who want to expand gun control agree and take a policy change any way they can get it? Or will they lean toward the research indicating this will have limited effect on America's mass shooting problem?
In all the crosstalk, the attack in Orlando, at the very least makes this much clear: We may not be able to neatly divide hate crimes from terrorism, terrorism from crime, crime from gun policy, or gun policy from mental health care services and spending anymore.