The mass shooting in Orlando early Sunday, the worst in U.S. history, seemed designed to press as many hot buttons as possible in a nation already on edge from an ugly election campaign. Islamist-fueled terrorism, homophobia, the easy availability of weapons of war — all were possible factors as the horrific facts trickled out. In such a situation, there is a temptation to draw too many lessons, or draw them too soon. But it would be just as wrong to shy away from lessons staring us in the face.
First, attention must go to the families of the many, many dead, and to the injured, whose lives will be forever altered. Respect must be paid to the law enforcement officers who rushed to the nightclub, and to the nurses, doctors and other health workers who repaired to emergency rooms turned suddenly into war zones. “No one could have predicted this, no one could have prepared for it,” a local faith leader said at one of the morning news briefings. “It’s like lightning.”
That is half-right. The apparent randomness of mass shootings means there is no strategy that can guarantee anyone's safety. A military base, a county workplace, a nightclub, an elementary school: Any place in any state may become a target. But these shootings are different from lightning: They are not acts of nature. In that sense, the post-shooting discussion reminds us of the analysis that now follows every extreme weather event: We can’t say for sure that any specific storm or flood is caused by climate change, but we know climate change will bring more extreme weather events.
In the same way, it will take some time to learn the facts behind Sunday’s slaughter, the balance of motivations for the shooter, now dead. We may never fully understand him. But there are some things we know to be true, just as we know climate change is real. We know that bigotry begets bigotry, that making lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender people feel unwanted in one place can encourage haters somewhere else. We know that Islamist terrorism must be fought and contained wherever it appears, because its poison cannot be localized. We know that a key to fighting its poisonous ideology is recognizing Muslims as its most frequent victims and most important opponents, and that making Muslims feel unwelcome in our country would be the gravest error imaginable, not only tactically but for our moral health as well. We know that assault weapons have a singular purpose, to kill many people rapidly, and that they are too plentiful in this country and too easily obtained.
And we know — we are reminded — that we live in a dangerous moment, in a dangerous world. We need leaders who understand the complexity of the challenge, not those who seek power by exploiting and inflaming prejudice.
Is it politicizing a tragedy to note these truths? If yes, so be it. What happened in Orlando may be unfathomable. But it was not a bolt from the blue.
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