So today in American history we mark what has been, so far anyways, our deadliest mass shooting ever. It happened early Sunday Morning June 12, 2016. Remember that date, it will probably be with us for a while. An American citizen, that part is important too, named Omar Mateen, yes he was Muslim or at least he had been raised Muslim, took an assault weapon (a semi-automatic rifle, an AR-15) and a handgun were legally purchased by Mr. Mateen within 7 days prior to the shooting. He attacked a nightclub called Pulse, a club which caters to the LGBT community. At least 50 people died and 53 more were wounded. Approximately 3 hours later police stormed the club and shot Mr. Mateen dead, even though a police officer was wounded in the assault. Their attack enabled the rescue of about 30 hostages. The city of Orlando set up a special webpage where they intend to release the names of the victims whose families have already been contacted. As of 7:57 pm on 6/12, 7 names have been released.
“Edward Sotomayor Jr., 34 years old
Stanley Almodovar III, 23 years old
Luis Omar Ocasio-Capo, 20 years old
Juan Ramon Guerrero, 22 years old
Eric Ivan Ortiz-Rivera, 36 years old
Peter O. Gonzalez-Cruz, 22 years old
Luis S. Vielma, 22 years old” (all information on the identities of the slain comes from the City of Orlando “Victims” blog)
But these are the facts, we also know a few other things.
What this means
First, this was about killing gay people.
The incident is not isolated, The FBI data from 2014 shows that hate crimes against individuals due to sexual orientation (aka because they weren’t straight) was 18.6% of all reported (because incidentally Florida does not report crime statistics to the FBI) hate crimes. Also on the same day the police in Los Angeles arrested a man who claimed to be on his way to the LA Gay pride parade. James Howell, an American Citizen whose religion is unknown, was stopped by police before he could commence his attack. His car was filled with guns and explosives.
So why? Well for some crazy reason Americans don’t seem to like gay people all that much. Being gay has been everything from a mental disorder (removed from the DSM in 1973) to a grievous religious sin in pretty much all the major patriarchal monotheisms. When you talk to people who disapprove of gays you tend to find two basic responses
Response 1: I just think it’s unnatural.
Response 2: My religion/G-d/belief system says that it is wrong.
To those who are just sticking with response 1 you can always try to introduce them to an actual live gay person. It becomes harder to think that someone doesn’t deserve to exist, because their presence is some kind of crime against nature, when you are faced with a living breathing person who is just like them. If that doesn’t work they may be committed to some version of natural law. Try introducing them to the works of G.E. Moore and the idea of the naturalistic fallacy. Or else just get them to read Hume, yeah, that should do it.
If you find that a person is sticking with response 2, then you have your work cut out for you. If it is just their personal belief system that backs up their hate then you can also try introducing them to real human LGBT people. Most decent people find it hard to hate when confronted by nice people who are easy to get along with. But, if it’s their religion then let me try to explain something.
Why you can’t love even when your religion commands it
One of the hardest things in the world to do is to love people when your religion has given you compelling reasons to think that those people are evil. If your faith has condemned someone for their actions, lifestyle, or even their basic existence then you will find loving them an impossible task.
Various theological tricks have been invented to reconcile the inability to love those you are encouraged to hate. “Love the sinner, hate the sin”, but of course it becomes very difficult to separate a person from their actions so you hate them anyways. “I love everyone, regardless of what they do,” which means you are still keeping score and you still get pissed off when people break your rules. “I don’t see your sin, I see the beautiful person God really made you to be,” and this of course is the nice way of saying I would hate you less if you would just become the ideal person I really want you to be.
But why is this so impossible? Easy, life sucks.
You see, much of our lives is filled with the frustration of not getting what we want. This takes many forms and comes to us in many ways but the basic attitude is the same. Nietzsche called it ressentiment, and it is a rather common part of the human experience. Life frustrates our desires and goals and we compile this frustration into a mental state of fear and bitterness. This is true especially of those whose lives and fortunes have been close to the top but not quite there. You find this in history in the middle class American slave owners, the Eastern European gangs who carried out the pogroms, and you find it in the heart of murderers and mass shooters. People think that life owes them something they have been denied and so they build up bitterness and hate.
Then, along comes their religion which attempts to establish clear moral rules about the dos and don’ts. But in doing so the religion also establishes clear identities of people who are rule breakers. Breaking the rules, or sinning, becomes more than just a momentary lapse, it becomes a destiny. When this identity becomes a destiny it then becomes the only relevant thing about a person. I.e. “I don’t need to know your past you are a liar”, or “I don’t care about your pretty words you are a cheat”, or “You seem like a human being, but I know you are just a wicked slut so I feel justified in the violence I am about to let loose on you.”
When you identify someone or something as wicked/evil/sinful/base you automatically determine that you hate it/them. Why? Because our mind has only 2 basic moral categories and a whole lot of gray between. Things which are definitely good we love and approve and desire. Things which are definitely bad we hate and despise and avoid. Sure most things we are ambivalent on since we don’t easily define things by our moral categories, but if something falls firmly in the good or evil camp you can bet we will love or hate it.
So we find ourselves loving horrible people and things because we believe they are good. And we find ourselves hating very wonderful people and things because we believe they are evil. I could go on about how easy this is but let me add one final thing.
Since our lives are spent struggling with uncertainty and failure you find that people take a special delight in being given the approval to hate something. When I hate I know who I am and I know that I am powerful. When I hate I take destruction into my hands and I bring rage into my fists. When I hate all the fear and smallness I feel at the powerless state of my life seems to disappear. When I hate I become the righteous vengeance of God and all I do is justified by the absolute gleeful assurance that at long last, I AM POWER, I AM STURM UND DRANG!
Why things don’t seem to change
Of course things change all the time but let’s address the key issues.
Gun violence, mass shootings, suicides, and all the needless death which guns bring to our society are the price of admission. We pay this price every day and every year because we think that the ride this price lets us on is freedom and independence. We have become so invested in our own mythology that we actually think America was made by men with guns. We think our freedoms and rights are protected by force of arms rather than by reason and law. We think that our ability to deal death is the only thing keeping others from dealing death to us. We live trapped in fantasies where guns are our salvation, and we seem unable to wake from this dream to the reality of our blood soaked sheets. In short, we Americans have come to accept that guns are necessary because they make us feel safe, even though they do nothing of the sort. It would be like the person dying from lung cancer who smokes 2 packs a day since they are convinced that more cigarettes is the answer. It’s like the person dying from liver failure who keeps pounding back shots of liquor, secure in the fantasy that they are treating their problems with the best medicine money can buy.
On a different note, religion isn’t going anywhere. It’s too ingrained, it’s too essential to the human experience. We need something to cling to against the chaos of the universe and the madness of our lives. We need something that makes us a part of the lives of others and brings us together in the mutual recognition of knowing that we worship the same gods. We can’t be rid of religion, and we are unlikely to fix it either. Religions do evolve, but they are slow and obstinate. Some groups are already there, but others probably need a few more centuries.
Besides, it’s not religion that’s the problem. It isn’t faith or theology or sacred books that kill, it’s people who kill to protect safeguard and preserve those ideologies. But not all of our death dealing comes directly, some of it exists in the slow bleeding of society. Some of it is found in the choking atmosphere of the words of politicians. Some death dealing comes in the words of journalists who determine that some people’s religions are important to their identities and other’s, not so much.
Today, I can’t stomach this, today I am not mad, I’m furious.