A couple of weeks back, there was another spectacle of mass murder here in the United States. This one happened to be the worst in the country’s history since the template was established with the University of Texas Clock Tower Sniper shooting in 1966. This particular tragedy plugs into the rampant homophobia of our culture, homophobia that is perhaps in a reactionary uptick following the notable moves towards equal rights of the past few years. Like other televised, firearm enable spree killers, this horror-show incites conversations about mental illness, about toxic masculinity, about ISIS and the potential for self-radicalization (irrelevant to the particular case in my opinion, although absolutely integral to people with radically different fears than mine), about a lot of issues that we’ll argue as to how much they matter and what we should *really* be thinking about during times like these.
More importantly, this event has incited discussion and argumentation amongst legislators. Notably those who wish the break the NRA’s stranglehold on national level gun policy (namely, the position that no new or extended restrictions on gun access of any kind can even be considered/voted on/passed, cannot be studied, and cannot even have relevant data collected) have adopted new tactics (a filibuster and a sit-in). And that –at least- I find to be an extremely positive change; even if the ‘common sense’ measure they’re attempting to push –the expansion of prohibitions centered around terror watch/no fly lists- is something that I consider to be a terrible idea from a due process point of view alone. But that’s not what I want to write about.
On June 12, 2016 Omar Mateen killed 49 people and wounded 53 others inside the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida. In this essay, I’ll refer to this act –the killing and shooting and dying- as the first assault. For days, weeks, months; in some tiny, nearly imperceptible way for a lifetime after the first assault millions might feel afraid, depressed, enraged but most important millions might feel *unsafe.* This emotional turmoil emanating from the first assault, I’ll refer to as the second assault.
The first assault of the Pulse Nightclub Shooting was a tragedy and crafting better legislation making events like it less likely (or even to make a positive difference in the far more common gun empowered violence) is a worthwhile policy goal for our representatives to labor on. The first assault was a horror that all of us need to work to prevent by reforming our collective culture; the nightmarish elements of our homophobia, the way we teach men what being a man means, the way we –as a culture- do not provide sufficient tools for people facing emotional problems and violent impulses. If there is any good to come out of these acts of terrorism like the first assault, it is that they do (or at least can) invite a moment of reflection on your own behavior. When these things happen (and how they’ve been happening over the last few years) I try to use it to check in with myself to see if I am truly living my values, truly working to reform my country/culture/world/myself into something better and more humane.
The *second* assault of the Orlando Shooting however, like the second assaults of all terrorizing spectacle, is the one I ultimately fear more, the one that deserves more of my attention and work to ameliorate. Because it’s the one that, if I’m not careful, I’m more directly if only partially responsible for.
The deaths of 49 people is a tragedy, and I grieve for the family and friends who lost someone who mattered to them. They are certainly the ones who have suffered the most due to the actions of Omar Mateen in addition to our actions (or lack of actions) to facilitate him.
Millions of people however who, for just a little while perhaps, were depressed or scared, all those potential kids who will ‘stay in the closet’ and so lead half-lives because here’s yet more evidence that to be queer is to be unsafe, all the important, caring, improving work that didn’t get done because the people who needed to do it were reeling from the portents of doom flowing in from the airwaves and fiber-optic cables, all the hate and sadness born of people who –fueled by their outrage and hurt- got sucked into pointless social media pissing matches and flame wars where no participant had any desire to change but only prove how smart they were (or how dumb their ideological opponents are which amounts to the same thing): all of these things are part of second assault costs. And these traumas are all most assuredly shallower than those experienced by people who were personally effected by the first assault; but in scooping up all the (comparatively shallower) pain, all the loss, all the fucked up bullshit of the second assault you could fill a vacant ocean.
I find it difficult to write about the second assault and why it’s important to focus on because I don’t want it seem like I don’t care; because I *do* care. But, also, so often ‘care’ is confused for worry, for becoming pointlessly enmeshed in sorrow that isn’t yours that prevents you from accomplishing the things that will actually improve your life and the lives of others; so often ‘care’ is confused for ideological knee jerk that doesn’t help anyone but is simply a way we soothe ourselves. And this ‘confused’ caring will ultimately result in the most agony.
While it’s not evenly distributed, we as modern day humans are safe, or –if nor safe- than as near as we can tell we are much, much safer (from theft, from violence, from disease, from hunger) than any group of humans at any point in our species’ history. And yet so often we feel as though we are under siege, we feel so vulnerable. And so we stock up on guns, spend our lunch breaks reading articles about what to do in the case of an active shooter. Despite that fact that we are so much safer than our ancestors I doubt that we are –on average- in any way more confident or feel more secure than they did (in fact, I suspect the opposite is true). What accounts for that difference I believe is our relationship with media, the platform, the space in our lives we give to those who would see us afraid, who would see us cowed is so much greater.
So why does horrifying spectacle like the Orlando Shooting terrify us so much more than the things that are *far* more likely to kill or hurt us (like traffic collisions, or heart disease, or even suicidal despondency)? I think it’s because in cases like mass shootings it’s so clear that the victims had no efficacy; a man decided to buy a weapon and engage in mass murder and there’s nothing any of those club goers could do about it. As for car accidents… well on some level we can all fool ourselves into believing that those only happen to *bad* drivers. And cancer? Well sure that’s scary but wasn’t so and so a smoker\drinker\bad eater\negative nelly so *really* it won’t happen to us. With the Pulse Nightclub shooting and similar acts of terror, the victims died through no fault of their own. And they died because someone *chose* for them to die; and that intent (not present in the far more significant instances of illness or accident) is what gets under our skin, that reminder that we could be subject to death at the deaths of a madman or political ideologue or just someone who was taught to hate people of a certain race/ethnicity/sexual orientation reminds us that are not in control and –no matter what we do- an evil (or merely misguided) human being can quickly and easily destroy us and the people we care about.
This startling reminder that we are not –if it comes down to it- masters of our own fate is horrendously uncomfortable and we will go to horrible, evil lengths; we will agree to horrible, evil actions by our leaders to regain a sense of control. In the response to the second assault of the Orlando Shooting, thousands, possibly millions have rushed out to acquire ‘defensive’ weapons with which they are *far* more likely hurt themselves or their families than ever to protect *anyone.* To scale it up, on September 11th 2001 our society experienced the worst, most horrifying act of terrorism in our history; 2996 people were killed and another 6000 injured. In response to this our representatives (if not a majority of the population) agreed to the invasion and occupation of Iraq – an act sold in large part under the rationale of preventing similar events in the future (if not bringing those responsible to justice). This act led to the deaths of *at least* 151,000 Iraqis and 4,497 Americans in addition to causing terrible effects for the region in particular and the world in general which we’ll be sorting through for generations.
First assaults, these scattered acts of personally or politically motivated mass murder, are terrible and good policy, good policing, and –on the rarest occasions- the appropriate use of military force is needed to decrease the likelihood of such events happening. But the second assaults –the memetic attacks that risk triggering an almost auto-immune like disorder in our society; these second assaults that depress and terrify the people I care about, it is these that I truly fear and wish to spend more time & energy thwarting.