Part of me wants it to be a gay thing. A closeted gay man, out only to himself and the people he meets surreptitiously on dating sites that allow him to mask his identity (and so not actually out to them either in any meaningful way) finally finds bearing the burden of being himself only to himself too great to bear and he snaps. Seeking out a club full of happy gay people enjoying an evening of dancing and partying, none of whom appears to be viewing his or her sexual identity as an unbearable burden, he decides to take the ultimate revenge on them for daring to live their lives unencumbered by subterfuge and unsaddled by shame. Living in a state in which assault rifles are sold in strip malls to anyone over eighteen years of age who has never been charged with or convicted of a felony, convicted twice of drunk driving, involuntarily committed to a mental health facility, or the subject of a restraining order, the man buys a gun and lots of ammunition, then sets out to make the point as viscerally as possible that he is nothing like those weirdos who go dancing in gay nightclubs. There’s something virtuous about this narrative too, because it focuses on the victims and remembers them as innocent targets of violent prejudice rather than merely as innocent bystanders who had the misfortune to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. In that sense, explaining this as a kind of anti-gay pogrom carried out by a sole Cossack honors the memory of the dead by refusing to obscure the reason they died in a way that referring to Orlando as an example of “senseless murder” would suggest: it wasn’t senseless, because it was fully intentional. And it is a satisfying narrative for the nation as well because it makes the whole thing about the shooter, thus something we can move past simply by turning the page and reading instead about some other catastrophe somewhere.
Another part of me, however, wants it to be about guns. That too is a satisfying narrative, or a semi-satisfying one. A man who is clearly crazy—because how could someone who carries out the cold-blooded murder of strangers enjoying an evening out in a dance club possibly not be a deranged person?—a man who is obviously deranged takes his place in the unholy line-up of other crazy people who have committed mass murder with guns. Some of the citizens on that line-up have become famous or semi-famous, like Jared Lee Loughner, Adam Lanza, Eric Harris, Dylan Klebold, Nidal Hassan, or Dylann Roof. Others, like James Holmes, Wade Page, Syed Farook, and Tashfeen Malik, all of whom committed terrible crimes, somehow failed to gain the attendant celebrity generally accorded to mass murderers in our country. But they all are united in my mind by the fact that they had, all of them, easy access to the guns they used to kill and didn’t have the moral strength to resist the demons that urged them forward to perpetrate their horrific crimes. (For the record, James Eagan Holmes murdered twelve people in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, in 2012. Wade Michael Page murdered six people in the Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, earlier that same year. Farook and Malik were the perpetrators of the massacre in San Bernardino last December.)
It’s satisfying, this narrative, partially because it explains something that would otherwise feel inexplicable, partially because it explains—or rather explains away—the crime as the insane act of a deranged individual and leaves us free to draw the conclusion we all so desperately want to draw: that no further action is required, that crazy people always do crazy things, that this was a disaster…but not one that could have been prevented. And that seems key as I survey the opinions flying around the blogosphere: that we, the people, find a way to believe that we didn’t do anything wrong, that he, the insane perpetrator, is—or rather, was—the criminal. If he were still alive, he could be tried in a court of law. But he isn’t and so he can’t…and with that grim thought in place, those who embrace this version of the narrative too are free to turn the page and read about something less distressing.
This is the narrative put forward by Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut and his fellow filibusterers, whose basic point was that, if gun purchases were more restricted in certain specific ways, then fewer bad people would have guns. Leaving aside Second Amendment issues, there are still deep problems with this narrative. Criminals are by definition law breakers, so tightening up existing laws will only affect people who are law-abiding. Furthermore, guns like hunting rifles, which no one would dream of banning entirely, can also be used to commit horrible crimes. Most important of all, the sheer number of guns out there at the moment—about 300 million according to the Congressional Research Service—makes it unlikely that any effort to change the rules for acquiring guns would matter much for decades, if not scores of years, to come. But the “guns narrative” is satisfying nevertheless because blame renders cogent the inexplicable. And that, more than anything, seems to be exactly what we want: for this whole incident to be explicable.
And then there’s the Islamicist narrative, the one that casts Orlando not as Charleston, but as San Bernardino. An American-born Muslim of Afghan descent is somehow radicalized and embraces the barbaric militarism of Islamic extremism. Pausing in the middle of the massacre to reiterate to some random 911 operator that he was acting as an ISIS operative, the murderer in this narrative too grants us the right to qualify his act as explicable…because he himself has explicated it. Seeking to murder innocents as a way of expressing his hostility to Western culture in general and the country of his birth—our country—in particular, the shooter was, according to this narrative, neither crazy nor confused. Indeed, according to this narrative, he was entirely aware of what he was doing, which was doing his best to bring to these shores the kind of terror that the residents of ISIS-occupied Syria and Iraq know all too well and which ISIS has already brought to Paris and Brussels. The question of whether Omar Mateen was a “real” ISIS operative is irrelevant: either he was or he wasn’t, but the bottom line is that it hardly matters if he was a self-appointed operative or one taking specific instructions from his handlers across the sea because, regardless, he killed not for personal gain or out of any animus against any of his victims, but as an act of Islamic martyrdom. There is something satisfying about this narrative as well. It grants international stature to what would otherwise be a solely American tragedy. It explains the deed, however perversely, as a kind of political statement rather than one prompted by “mere” insanity. But although it is true that no one seems to know how to prevent these acts, it is also true that even as draconian a measure as Donald Trump’s proposed temporary ban on Muslim immigration or even entrance to our country would not address the danger posed by home-grown jihadists like the Omar Mateens of this world.
The key to all of the above narratives is that they all attempt to explain a deed that would otherwise be deemed inexplicable…but none is entirely convincing. The world is full of closeted gay men who do not turn to mass murder to express their frustration with their lot in life. Millions of people buy guns and behave fully legally and responsibly with them. The large majority of Muslims who live and thrive here do not become radicalized or intoxicated with the siren call of Islamicist martyrdom. So all of these lines of explanation say something about what happened in Orlando, but none explains it entirely.
By almost every conceivable measure, we are a sophisticated nation. But a lot of the cutting-edge culture in which we take such pride is, I fear, a mere patina the only obscures the child-like, impulsive, cowboy deep within the American soul. We pride ourselves on being a nation of peacemakers and consensus builders. But I begin to wonder if that isn’t only how we enjoy thinking of ourselves…but if, just beneath the surface, we aren’t a nation of gunslingers that not only doesn’t truly abhor gun violence, but secretly—or not so secretly—revels in it. We couldn’t possibly loathe more the violent extremists who perpetrate terrorists attacks on innocents at home and abroad, but there is something in our collective American soul that admires violence, that is just a bit fascinated by it. We abhor murder and rape. But Hollywood turns out an almost endless series of movies that pander shamelessly to a movie-going public that is far more transfixed than repulsed by acts of savagery and violence. We speak endlessly about how much we yearn for peace. But no one buys video games that feature peoples living in peace and learning pacifically to co-exist in God’s world.
To blame Orlando on the degree to which the shooter turned his back on our gentle society to embrace the fiery rhetoric and siren call of the barbarian elements in his own religious world…is at least a little to miss the point. Since 9/11, ninety-four Americans have died at the hands of violent jihadists. By comparison, about half as many people, forty-eight, have died at the hands of far-right extremists. (Click here for both complete lists.) But in the years between 2001 and 2014, almost 221,000 people in the United States were victims either of murder or non-negligent manslaughter. For American men between the ages of fifteen and twenty-nine, gun homicide is the third-leading cause of death. If every single day of the year France were to endure a mass shooting like the one last year that took 130 innocent lives, their annual rate of gun homicides would still be lower than ours.
And that is the dark side of the story: that Omar Mateen, disgruntled and enraged, was tapping into something dark and terrible deep within the American psyche that doesn’t hate violence anywhere nearly as passionately as we never tire of saying that we do. That he perpetrated a crime of unspeakable evil goes without saying. But for Americans merely to wave him away as a crazy person without acknowledging the degree to which we have created a culture that accommodates violence and fosters a Wild-West kind of gun culture that no one seems to know how to defuse—that would be an example of self-serving rhetoric at its least introspective.
I can’t even bring myself to look at the portraits of the dead. As I wrote a few weeks ago in an entirely different context, each was a universe of experience and potential, a world of intelligence and emotion. Each had a backstory and a future to invent. None was a victim or a fatality; each was the whole world. As a nation, we must mourn our dead and pay homage to their memory. To do so while simultaneously looking away from the incredible number of gun homicides in our country and wondering how we can stem that vicious, horrific tide…that is not to honor them at all, but to treat their deaths like statistics instead of taking their loss as a moral challenge that the nation that lost them should and must now face.