Love and death in the dark of Orlando
The worst mass shooting in American history stirred up a cauldron of national anxieties over guns, terrorism, and LGBT rights, yet it also struck a deeper note, that, in the infamous words of LBJ, "we must either love each other, or we must die."
As the sun finally rose over Orlando after one of the worst nights in American history, investigators were trying to somehow make sense out of a crime scene with 50 dead bodies splayed across what had been a joyous dance floor hours earlier, when they confronted a soul-chilling sound.
In the pants pockets and purses of the victims of the nation's most horrific mass murder, cell phones kept continually ringing, buzzing and vibrating -- calls from frantic parents and friends trying to reach loved ones they will never hear again.
The raw sounds, as reported later by those investigators, seemed to symbolize an American event so awful that no one yet has been able to find the right words in the English language to express the mix of grief and fury over what happened inside the packed Pulse nightclub at 2 a.m. on June 12, 2016.
There's little dispute about the basic truths, that a 29-year-old man named Omar Mateen walked into the popular gay night spot, which was holding a Latin dance night, with an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle as well as a handgun. That Mateen fired shot after shot, wounding 53 people in addition to the 50 who died. That the gunman took hostages, then died in a shootout with a local SWAT team. Or that he was an American citizen -- born in New York, living in Florida -- whose parents had come here from Afghanistan, who'd drawn attention from authorities for possible ties to Islamic jihad but who last week purchased his weapons legally.
Yet the unbridled horror of the facts still doesn't fully capture how the Orlando killings fanned the flames of American anxiety -- already raging in a presidential election year marked by epic levels of division and rage -- to new and perilous heights.
You may be familiar with the parable of the blind men and elephant. In the wake of the carnage at the Pulse nightclub, no one could deny the Goliath of mass killings in America, the bloody trail that extends from the kindergarten classrooms of Newtown to an office holiday party in San Bernardino -- a trail that seems to stop only at this nation's borders.
But closer to the ground, the rugged elephant skin of American gun violence tinged with elements of terrorism looked and felt totally different depending on where you were already standing -- politically -- when you woke up to confront the dire news on a bright Sunday morning.
To the millions of citizens who support saner gun laws in a nation that already has a greater population of firearms than human beings, the Orlando massacre was a reminder of the failures to convince Washington or state lawmakers to reject the NRA's blood money and to ban assault weapons like the AR-15, or high-capacity magazines.
"This phenomenon of near constant mass shootings happens only in America - nowhere else," said Connecticut Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy, who failed to win stronger gun laws after 27 of his constituents were murdered in Newtown in 2012. "Congress has become complicit in these murders by its total, unconscionable deafening silence. This doesn't have to happen, but this epidemic will continue without end if Congress continues to sit on its hands and do nothing - again."
But millions of citizens who feel that the threat of Islamic terrorism remains the top U.S. priority, 15 years after the 9/11 attacks, took to social media to blame the attacks on nothing else besides radical Islam, in some cases even before an FBI agent alleged that the shooter had dialed 9-1-1 and pledged allegiance to ISIS before his rampage.
To no one's surprise, no one was quicker with his thumbs than presumptive GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump, who first congratulated himself for his past terror alarmism in a childish post on Twitter -- without a word of sympathy for the victims -- and later issued a bizarre statement insisting that President Obama should resign and his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton should end her campaign because neither uttered the phrase "radical Islam." Others voiced similar views without the slather of narcissism.
Yet someone offered up a worse instant reaction: the lieutenant governor of America's second largest state, Texas Republican Dan Patrick, whose tweet quoting the biblical chapter of Galatians -- "Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows" -- was viewed as blaming the gay lifestyle of the victims for their violent murder. (It was later deleted, as an aide insisted it had been scheduled in advance.)
The most powerful reactions, though, came from America's LGBT community, and the many of us who love and support them, who felt strongly that the massacre showed that -- for all the major advances in LGBT rights in recent years -- some people are still attacked and even killed simply for who they are and who they love.
Thousands took to the streets, especially in city's such as Philadelphia that had already scheduled LGBT-oriented Pride celebrations with an air of defiance tinged with deep sorrow. Even the news that, outside Los Angeles, an Indiana man bound for that city's Pride festivities with three assault rifles and possible explosives had been arrested didn't slow the outpouring. Over the city of Seattle, the rainbow flag symbolizing gay pride flew at half-mast from the iconic Space Needle.
The politicizing and the passion obscured the facts that Orlando was almost an inevitability, in a country where so many haters of every possible stripe -- from South Carolina's white supremacist Dylann Roof to the man who shot up a Wisconsin Sikh temple four years ago -- have already exploited the ease of obtaining rapid-fire killing machines.
In 2011, the soon-to-be-drone-killed American-born al-Qaeda member Adam Gadahn told would-be terrorists in a message that in the United States "[y]ou can go down to a gun show at the local convention center and come away with a fully automatic assault rifle without a background check and most likely without having to show an identification card. So what are you waiting for?"
They weren't waiting for Congress, apparently. Just this December, a majority of 54 senators -- all but one of them Republicans -- voted down an amendment that would have denied people on a federal terrorism watch list the ability to purchase guns.
Then there's the Orlando gunman's primary weapon, the AR-15 -- the same type of military-style, rapid-fire semi-automatic rifle that was also used in Newtown, San Bernardino and the Aurora, Colorado movie theatre shooting that killed 12 people, yet has remains largely unregulated.
When Obama stepped forward to condemn the mass killings -- some said it was the 18th such moment in his presidency, some claimed it was "only" the 15th -- it was with an enormous weight of weariness. "We have to decide if that's the kind of country we want to be," he said. "And to actively do nothing is a decision, as well."
And yet no one expects any real action. How could we, in a nation that stood by and did nothing after little 5- and 6-year-olds were slaughtered in their classroom?
The Philadelphia talk radio host Dom Giordano tweeted that "[t]his attack on people who are gay forces the Left to confront the reality of the terrorists." Yet one could argue that the ease with which the gunman obtained his AR-15 even when he was on the FBI's terror radar screen should make the Right confront the reality of America's weak gun laws.
The political debates continue to mask what many Americans fear the most -- that a flaming cauldron of social, political or religious-inspired hate, with millions of lethal firearms tossed onto the fire, now seems to be raging beyond what any law or any political figure is able to extinguish.
In recent days, many folks (myself included) watched an HBO movie. "All the Way" -- a stunning performance by Bryan Cranston as President Lyndon Johnson winning election to a full term in 1964. The film depicts the creation of that campaign's infamous "Daisy" ad, in which a girl picking flower pedals gives way to nuclear mushroom cloud, and then a thundering LBJ with this jarring proclamation:
"These are the stakes. To make a world in which all of God's children can live, or to go into the dark. We must either love each other, or we must die."
The first few times I heard that, it struck me as an odd and maybe even an inappropriate thing to say in an election campaign. But increasingly it makes sense -- for then, but especially this time around. The unspeakable tragedy in Orlando forces us to see that the stakes have been raised in a way that transcends anything in the political realm.
We must learn how to love each other.
Or we will face the deadly consequences, again and again.