The Orlando massacre will haunt us for a long time. The worst mass shooting in U.S. history — 49 dead and 53 wounded — took place at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, during Pride Month. The perpetrator, Omar Mateen, was an American, born in New York to Afghan parents. A security guard, he was, according to his ex-wife, an angry and sometimes violent man. He bizarrely called 911 in the midst of his rampage to announce his allegiance to the Islamic State, yet his father said, “This had nothing to do with religion,” saying that his son was outraged by the sight of gay men kissing on the street. It was, as President Obama stated, “an act of terror and an act of hate.”
In his address to the country, the president captured what was under attack. “This is a sobering reminder,” he said, “that attacks on any American — regardless of race, ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation — is an attack on all of us and on the fundamental values of equality and dignity that define us as a country.”
Members of the LGBTQ community, only now moving toward equal rights, find themselves once more as casualties of extreme hatred. Across the country, vigils showed expressions of solidarity. Across the country, Muslim organizations and leaders condemned the massacre, which has no religious justification or precedent in Islam, just as it has none in U.S. law. In a moving statement, the Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity called on all Americans “to resist forces of division and hatred, and to stand against homophobia and transphobia, as well as against Islamophobia and anti-Muslim bigotry. Tragedies often lead people to seek someone or something to blame, but we ask our friends to resist this temptation. Let us instead recommit ourselves to working toward a world without hatred and prejudice.” Yet members of the Muslim community — Shiite, Sunni, Christian and agnostic — once more face even greater suspicion, surveillance and the threat of violence.
The victims were not yet buried before the horror became grist for our poisonous and polarized politics. Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, called on Obama to resign and Hillary Clinton to withdraw from the race because they didn’t use the catchphrase “radical Islamic terrorism.” He vowed to double down on his ban on all Muslim immigration. Republicans such as Sen. Marco Rubio immediately called for escalating the attack on the Islamic State abroad and surveillance of Muslims at home. Obama, Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders directed remarks to the easy access to guns and the need for sensible gun law reform. All vowed to double down on attacking terrorists abroad and redoubling security at home.
We need more wisdom and less posturing about the underlying factors — hate, guns and terrorism — rooted in this horror. The United States is a large, diverse country. Diversity is a strength, but also a source of division. The struggle for equal opportunity across race, religion, gender and sexual orientation has always generated harsh reaction, often with cynical politicians mining the lodes of anger and hate. A few, often isolated and unstable, strike out from that anger. We saw that in the mass murder at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C.; we witnessed it in the slaughter at Pulse. We must actively challenge the purveyors of division and hate, and resist the temptation to blame the “other,” even while knowing that some of the haters may never be reached.
The United States has about as many guns as people. The easy access to assault weapons — weapons of war designed to kill in large numbers, just like grenades or artillery shells — is preposterous. Reinstating the ban on assault weapons that lapsed under George W. Bush should not be a partisan issue. Similarly, it is shameful that Republicans bowed to the gun lobby to block legislation that would ban those on the terrorist watch list from purchasing guns.
The president’s frustration at the failure to do the sensible was apparent in his statement on the Orlando tragedy: “This massacre is therefore a further reminder of how easy it is for someone to get their hands on a weapon that lets them shoot people in a school, or in a house of worship, or a movie theater, or in a nightclub. And we have to decide if that’s the kind of country we want to be. And to actively do nothing is a decision as well.”
Yet even sensible gun reforms can succeed only in making it harder, but not impossible, for a terrorist — homegrown or foreign — to get guns. Mateen bought the guns used in the massacre legally. A clear majority of Americans favor strong gun reforms, and fewer and fewer own guns in their homes. But we have a long way to go before we end the easy access to weapons of mass murder.
Furthermore, the Orlando massacre has already generated calls for greater escalation to take out the Islamic State, just as we took out Saddam Hussein and decimated al-Qaeda. But often these“victories” have led only to more wars, more terrorists, more interventions. In the wake of Orlando, politicians will compete once more to appear tough. But surely, at some point, we must reassess our strategy in the Middle East and seek a new course that does not generate more terrorists than it eliminates.
The Orlando massacre generates fear, rage and frustration. Rather than simply striking out and cracking down, we need to come together. Surely we should ban weapons of war from our communities, even while knowing that will not end the threat. Surely we’d be wise to reassess our course in the Middle East, to bring the endless wars without victory to an end, even while knowing that terrorists — both homegrown and foreign — will not suddenly disappear.
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