Before I start this, I should probably get a few things out on the table. I am a man. I am white. I am heterosexual; in the current vernacular I am cisgender. And I don’t believe in a god. I tell you these things up front because in some corners of the Internet these things disqualify the opinions I want to share with you here. If you are still reading, I also wish to share that I have had and still have meaningful relationships with people who are of many colors and ethnicities, different sexual orientations, and both genders including a few incredible people who have transitioned from one to the other. I am many things to many people and it would be unfortunate to stop any definition of who I am at “straight white man.”
When I first saw the news on the morning of June 12, 2016, it registered first as yet another sad example of gun violence in our society. The tragic events at Virginia Tech where 32 were killed, Sandy Hook Elementary where 27 were killed, shootings in Fort Hood, Texas and Binghamton, New York that each claimed 13 lives are examples from the last decade that illustrate the swift and permanent impact of gun violence in our modern world. People did these things. Individuals whose motives are as shrouded in mystery as they are diverse. We are left to speculate from the wreckage they leave behind.
Oh my god…
As the morning of June 12th went on, I felt unsettled but also unable to focus on what had happened in the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. I knew the basics as reported by the news media. Nearly 100 people had been killed or injured at a popular gathering spot for the gay community by a man who had taken the time to phone the media and declare his allegiance to Islamic extremists before opening fire on unsuspecting and defenseless people. The initial reports suggested that it was perhaps the shooter’s religious faith that motivated his actions.
Although I have abandoned any belief in a god at this point in my life, I was raised as a Christian and I must admit to being largely ignorant of the beliefs and religious tenets of the Islamic faith. In the days following the shooting, I tried to better understand what would motivate a young Muslim man to do something like this. I listened to Muslims and Muslim clerics on YouTube, I read more about the Islamic beliefs regarding homosexuality, and I tried to understand how those beliefs could translate into violence. With more than 1.5 billion Muslims in the world, I would expect far more acts like these if these beliefs were central to the Islamic faith. Apparently, much like my experience with Christianity, much is open to interpretation. The acts of one individual do not necessarily represent the beliefs of other Muslims.
I said in the beginning this piece that I am not just a “straight, white man” and I think it is unfair to stop any description of the Orlando shooter at “a young, Muslim man.” His religious beliefs may have played a significant role in this tragedy. But devout Muslims and Muslim leaders around the world were swift and emphatic in their condemnation of the shooting. While this young man may be associated with Islam, Islam did not in any institutional sense publicly praise or endorse his acts. In fact, I read with astonishment reports of Christian leaders praising the shooting. To me it seems that this was one man acting on his personal beliefs, not on behalf of any ideology.
Carefully chosen targets
The fact that this tragedy occurred in a nightclub popular with the gay community hit me particularly hard. I have been fortunate to call many gay and lesbian people “friend” over the years. Many of the people I dearly love have a same-sex orientation and it is through those relationships that I have come to understand the many challenges that gay and lesbian people face on a day to day basis in our society. I have watched for the last 40 years, sometimes in anger and sometimes in joy, as our society has adapted and become more accepting of those with same-sex orientation. And so the fact that such violence was done to individuals who have more than their share of adversity was particularly upsetting for me.
I am grateful that we live in a culture that allows people of similar interests to gather freely. Whether it is a gay nightclub or retail store for those who enjoy hunting and fishing, our society is supposed to provide for peaceful and safe places for people to gather. The fact that this one gunman could enter that nightclub armed as he was is deeply troubling. Not only could one of my gay or lesbian loved ones have been in that club, I could have been in there with them. I have been invited to go out with gay friends before and they have always been accepting of me as a “straight.” This was not just an assault on the gay community, it was an assault on gathering places of all kinds. In a very real sense, it made me feel that none of us are as safe as we might think.
The Orlando shooter may have targeted a gay nightclub for his own reasons but this is not just a “gay issue” for me. I don’t feel separate from the gay people in my life. My life is intertwined with theirs. Where they go, I go. Their interests are my interests on many levels. How can I not feel a sense of being targeted when those I love are targeted by hate? I think we have come too far as a society to try to separate ourselves now. This was not just an attack on the gay community; it was an attack on us all.
Guns make me profoundly uncomfortable. I have never owned one and on the very few occasions where I have had the opportunity to fire one recreationally, the immense power of these weapons terrified me. Once the trigger is pulled, there is no taking it back. We are at a point in our culture where the availability of guns is just a reality. They are simply there. Whenever I am out in public, I have to be aware that there may be one or more guns being carried by any of the people around me and that, at any time for their own reasons, one of those people could choose to use that gun. But would more strict gun control laws have prevented the Orlando shooting? I don’t think so. It’s more complicated than that.
Technology moves forward with our human evolution. Guns are just another technology. In my view, it is not the technology that is the problem so much as it is the application of that technology that we should be concerning ourselves with. Gun rights activists often make the argument that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” and I agree with that sentiment. Unfortunately, guns do make it remarkably easy and efficient to kill people. Much like other technologies, guns seem to get better at their job as time goes on. But I don’t see the value in blaming the tool instead of how it it used. Why are people shooting people? It’s a big question but it is much closer to the center of the problem, I think, than just taking the guns away.
I wish it were simple
Over the past couple of weeks, I have seen a lot of discussion about the Orlando shooting. There has been endless finger-pointing – “It is the Muslims.” “It is the Gays.” “It is the Gun advocates.” “The FBI messed up.” “The police should have done something.” “Where were his parents.” and more. It isn’t just one of those things and yet it is all of those things. It’s hard to process for me.
I am an atheist. As such, I don’t believe in a life for me beyond this one. This life is what I have and I have to make the best of it that I can. I treasure the people that share this life with me; the black, brown, gay, straight, nerds, rednecks – all of them. It terrifies me that any one of them could be taken from me in an instant because someone chooses to treat them as a label instead of a human being with a life and loved ones.
Perhaps most terrifying of all is that it could be me. After all, I am among the “godless ones” that some find abhorrent. Omar Mateen, the Orlando shooter, had his reasons for killing and maiming the people he did. Who is to say that someone else might not find a reason to do the same to me. Or you. It is just so mind-bogglingly big and complicated that it’s hard to come to terms with. But I don’t think that excuses any of us from making the effort. If we don’t think about these things and try to find solutions, it never gets better. And I think it has to get better. For all of our sakes. I don’t think we can afford to let it be “someone else’s problem” any longer.