Politics, Religion, USA

Thinking Through Orlando

Another day, another mass shooting in the United States of America. That makes 176 and counting for this calendar year depending on who you ask. And even though this one is statistically the biggest, it feels the same. The conversations sound the same. The venue is different, as are the names and faces, but other than that, same.

I’m not sure that I have any answers. I’m not sure about anything. There’s a lot to think about, and this blog is my way of doing that. In some cases, we write not to say what we think, but to think. Hopefully by writing this, I’ll begin to figure out what the hell that it is.

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One of the most salient factors of this particular shooting is the Islamic one. The fact that the Orlando shooter is a Muslim makes this shooting a different animal, even if it shouldn’t. Our political leaders have exemplified the polarization on this issue via their polar opposite reactions. On one end, Donald Trump has renewed his call for a ban on all Muslims seeking entry into the country, whereas on the other Barack Obama has once again refused to even use the words “radical Islam” in describing the attack.

In no way do I sympathize with the sentiments of Donald Trump and other piece of shit Republicans whose animosity towards gays is only temporarily being overshadowed by their even stronger hatred of Muslims, but that doesn’t mean that I agree with Barack Obama either. I understand Obama’s rationale—anti-Islamic rhetoric is exactly what groups like ISIS want. Be it real or perceived, an American “war on Islam” plays right into the Islamic State’s playbook. It would alienate much needed Muslim allies at home and abroad, and in some cases, drive them straight into enemy hands.

What is more, American obsession with combatting the Islamic boogeyman can also create a self-fulfilling prophecy within American Muslims. As in other faiths here in the United States, many Muslims do not see their religion as a salient part of their identities. They identify as Muslim, but other than that, are not overtly religious people. However, when societal voices regularly emphasize the Islamic elements of their identity, especially through sweeping generalizations and/or discriminatory treatment, salience is exactly what their religion gains. In other words, you’re going to be a lot more aware of your own Muslimness if people are constantly reminding you of how Muslim you are.


That being said, I think that ignoring the role of religion in this attack and others is a mistake. You do not have to be radicalized in order to subscribe to the homophobia inherent in the Islamic religion. In this case, it’s possible that the hatred that shooter Omar Mateen was feeling towards the LGBTQ community was also hatred for himself. Speculation that Mateen may have been gay could help to explain the enormous animosity that he felt towards that group, and as the Catholic Church has demonstrated, it wouldn’t be the first time that religious-based repression of one’s sexual identity led to unspeakable acts.

And while reminders of the violence and hatred also inherent within Christianity are warranted and sometimes necessary, I get a little tired of the liberals who, upon hearing a critique of Islamic ideology, reflexively respond by reminding the critic that other religions are violent too. Islamophobia is a real thing, and I understand why people are a bit touchy about it, but for atheists like myself who see religion in general as a detrimental force to humanity, this impediment to honest dialogue is annoying and counterproductive.

Liberals have also attempted to absolve Islamic ideology by labeling Mateen as a “lone wolf,” a self-radicalized anomaly whose actions were based on a perversion of the Islamic faith. But while it does appear that Mateen acted alone, anyone familiar with Islamic texts should not be surprised that he was able to arrive at such homophobic conclusions. The idea that homosexuality is a sin perhaps punishable by death is not as much of a perversion of Islam as it is a reasonable interpretation of it.

Which is why, in spite of my militant atheism, I have been so supportive of the efforts of people like Maajid Nawaz who seek to combat Islamic extremism through deradicalization and the promotion of more moderate manifestations of the faith. If it were up to me, we’d make John Lennon’s musings a reality and forge a world free from the manufactured divisions and diversions that religion creates. But since religion isn’t going anywhere, I guess that peaceful interpretations of violent texts like the Bible and the Quran would be something I could settle for. The vast majority of the world’s Muslims are already there. In fact, in the United States, Muslims as a group are actually far more accepting of homosexuality than their Evangelical counterparts.

But this attack and the homophobia that fueled it are a reminder of how far the LGBTQ community still has to go in its fight for acceptance and equality. The LGBTQ community has won a lot of battles in recent years. Some of us may have even thought that they had won the war in light of the 2015 Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges. But Orlando was a painful reminder that the war against homophobia is still very much ongoing.

And then there are guns. The United States clearly has a gun problem. I would hope that at this point even the most ardent second amendment supporters could admit that when it comes to protecting the constitutional right to bear arms, the costs are pretty high, particularly in regard to human life. Also, while I suppose that there remains some rationale to argue that gun ownership offers individuals a way to protect themselves, even though statistics suggest otherwise, I am sick of the argument that their gun ownership protects others too. I think that we’ve witnessed enough mass shootings in this country to conclude that those ‘good guy with a gun’ scenarios are complete and total bullshit. No one person with their conceal-and-carry permit could have saved those nightclub victims from Omar Mateen and his semi-automatic assault rifle, and even if they could have, the suggestion that you should need to arm yourself every time that you go out to drink and dance with friends says all you need to know about the out-of-control state of firearms in this country.

Which is why I believe in the necessity and urgency for common-sense gun control legislation—laws that can help to limit the ability to acquire firearms for those people who wish to do others harm. However, the more I read up on the nature of the problem, the less sure I am of exactly what that might look like. To be sure, there are certain measures that should be no-brainers—closing the no-fly list loophole, required background checks prior to weapons purchases, mandatory waiting periods, etc. But while these reforms would technically represent “progress,” I’m not sure how many of the recent mass shootings such reforms would have prevented.

This leads me to believe that perhaps more radical reforms are necessary—something similar to Australia’s assault weapons ban accompanied by a government buyback. But with the lack of political will to pass even the most common sense control measures, more radical, meaningful reform, at least in the foreseeable future, is probably a pipe dream, even following the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history.

Which brings us to another point of contention. While recent comparisons would suggest that headlines describing Orlando as the ‘deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history’ are indeed appropriate, critics have pointed out that more historic U.S. massacres, particularly the government-sponsored slaying of Native Americans at Wounded Knee, have witnessed much higher death tolls. In light of such criticisms, perhaps ‘deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history’ would be more historically accurate. However, while I usually consider myself somewhat of a social justice advocate, I feel that such corrections, in this case, are a bit out of place.


There are always glimmers of hope in tragedies like these. Immense gratitude is due to our public servants, police officers and hospital staff, who prevented the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history from becoming even deadlier. The lines that formed outside of Orlando blood banks of people looking to literally give a part of the themselves to help their fellow Floridians in a time of desperate crisis were inspiring to say the least. Late-night television personalities like Jimmy Fallon attempted to restore our faith in humanity reminding us that this was a case of one bad guy versus forty-nine good, and that at the end of the day, in spite of such tragedies, there will always be more good in the world than evil.

But while that’s a heartwarming message, I’m not sure that I like it. It’s true that the good people in this world outnumber the evil ones, and I’m glad that it’s true. It’s a comforting thought. But I don’t want to be comfortable right now, and I don’t want anyone else to be comfortable either. Comfort inspires inaction, and inaction is something that we’ve had all too much of.

I’ve also had enough of prayers, and not because I’m irreverent. I believe in the power of sending positive energy, religiously or otherwise, to people who need it. But as @igorvolsky has pointed out, prayers don’t mean shit if they’re not accompanied by action, and unfortunately, they rarely are.

And that’s the big question—in light of Orlando, will we finally fucking do something? Will we create real reforms? Will we inspire meaningful change? Or will we find ourselves some weeks or months down the road having the same conversation in light of another massacre? My gut feeling tells me that it’s the latter, but I hope that I’m wrong about that.   As my good buddy Andrew Miller tweeted on the morning of the attack:

I hope that he’s wrong too, or at the very least, that we can change that.


Correction:  In this blog post, I referred to the shooter’s weapon as a “semi-automatic assault rifle.”  It has since come to my attention that the term “assault rifle” is not an accurate description of this weapon.  Other than an extended clip, this weapon, while scary-looking, does not have the capacity to fire any faster than most semi-automatic hand guns.  What is more, an assault rifle ban would likely not include this particular weapon, another element that makes finding a sensible solution to America’s gun problem even more complicated.

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