After midnight at Pulse in Orlando, the dance floor was packed with gays and lesbians out for Latino night during Pride month. When the sun rose on Sunday, the dance floor was littered with bodies and blood, the silence punctuated by the sound of cell phones ringing in the pockets of the slaughtered, as their loved ones tried to see if they were ever coming home.
The deadliest mass shooting in American history was an act of ISIS-inspired terrorism, as American Omar Mateen used an AR-15 assault rifle to target a gay nightclub. This slaughter touches on many of the major stories of our time, ones that cut across political lines. It demands our attention and resolve.
This mass murder occurs during the mainstreaming of the LGBT civil rights movement in America, at a time when enormous gains toward full equality are being made yet vicious bigotry still endures. Those people who still parade their prejudices will now need to confront the common humanity of the dead in ways that may make it harder to hate in the future.
Forty-nine people were murdered because they were gay and because they were in America. They are not some “other.” They are our sons and daughters.
Their murders are a reminder that radical Islamist terrorism is the sworn enemy of liberal values. America’s essential diversity is an insult to fundamentalists who would prefer that the world fit a 7th century theocratic template. Anti-gay violence is a mainstay of Islamists: ISIS pushes gays off towers to their death in Raqqa; in Iran, gays are hung from cranes in public executions.
This feature of their fanaticism has seemed remote to many Americans, but now it has come home in horrific fashion. This is a form of fascism that targets the full expression of individuality and that finds gays and lesbians a particular insult to their imaginary world.
But we also know that the enemy is not Islam overall. Unity in diversity is America’s greatest strength and as we confront the reality of Islamist terrorism and we need to stay focused on the fact that the success of Muslim-Americans is one of our most powerful push-backs against the hate terrorists peddle to unhinged souls. Pluralism is the answer to extremism. It is no small irony that this mass murder occurs just days after the funeral of America’s most beloved Muslim, Muhammad Ali, whose life was a testament to the strength of self-determination. His status as an American hero was itself a measure of our ability to grow beyond old prejudices and form a more perfect union.
Finally, evil is real and the damage evil souls can do increases dramatically when assault weapons are readily available. Mass shootings have become a recurring horror of American life, accompanied by a sense of policy impotence. After all, if we couldn’t muster the political will after the chilling killing of 20 kids at Newtown to pass a modest bipartisan bill supported by 89% of the American people, when will we ever stand up to the gun lobby?
But this impotence is a choice, backed by cowardly congressmen. Tighter gun laws, consistent with the second amendment, will not be able to stop every mass shooting, but they can help reduce the body count. It appears that Mateen purchased his AR-15 legally, but that same weapon—whose sole purpose is to kill as many people as possible—was effectively covered by the assault weapons ban that was allowed to expire by Congress in 2004.
There will be politicians who demagogue facets of this mass murder for their own purposes. Of course, Donald Trump could not resist making the slaughter all about himself on social media. He will use it to justify his proposed Muslim ban and other spectacularly bad policies designed to stoke fear and blame for short-term political gain.
But if we resolve to learn the right lessons from this latest horror, we might be able to emerge from the pain a bit closer as a nation. Conservative politicians who oppose gay rights but are hawks on radical Islam might find new empathy and understanding. Progressive activists who see war with Islamist terrorism as simply a new shade of imperialism might question their occasional blame-America-first impulses. And perhaps we can have a more constructive debate in this presidential election about reasonable gun restrictions, because we are now in an era where terrorists are exploiting our lax gun laws to kill Americans. Surely, there is potential for new coalitions and new common ground.
Most of all, defiance to terrorism means refusing to live in fear. The Pulse was targeted by a terrorist because it was a symbol of gays and lesbians living their lives joyously. America’s classical liberal values are based on the foundation of individual self-determination.
Standing up for gay rights and standing up to terrorism are now self-evidently complimentary efforts in the larger battle between freedom and fundamentalism.