I was sitting in silence at Quaker Meeting this Sunday when I heard the news that 49 people were killed and 53 were injured in a mass shooting in a gay nightclub in Florida. The woman who shared the message was queer and a life-time peace advocate; she urged her fellow Friends to recognize that in the wake of this tragedy there should be an emphasis on healing and understanding. “We have to remember,” one Friend said, “That beneath all hatred is pain.”
Following the Meeting, a Friend asked the woman who shared her message about the shooting if she intentionally omitted the detail that the shooter, Omar Mateen, who himself was shot and killed by police, was a practitioner of the Islamic faith. “This tragedy fills me with grief but also worry,” the Friend said, “as someone who supports both the Islamic and LGBTQ communities.”
The woman who shared the news said she was unaware of the shooter’s faith, but it is clear that the tragedy in Orlando is a confluence of so many contemporary American maladies: the struggle between 2nd Amendment rights and a call to end gun violence in the face of mass shootings, a clarion call for LGBTQ and gender based equality amid pervasive homophobia and gender-based violence, the perception and treatment of individuals living with mental health disorders, the frustration felt by Americans of color targeted by a police force that should work to protect them, fifteen years of the U.S. military’s war on terror, on ISIS and political and media-stoked inferno of national Islamophobia.
It is hard to see clearly through the smokescreen of emotion, but this is what we know: Fifty lives have ended. Fifty people will never again laugh at a friend’s joke, will never talk to their siblings on the phone, will never close their eyes to the summer sun and feel its warmth on their eyelids. The lights of fifty lives were snuffed out, and they were not given the gift of saying goodbye to the people they loved.
Fifty more have been physically wounded and countless others, radiating out in infinite circles of contact, will feel the pain of this tragedy. This shooting occurred during Pride Month; it was a hate crime. It targeted people because of their sexual orientation and identity, and the members of this community and all other minority communities have been made victims by this attack.
This was the most devastating mass shooting in our country’s history — the country of Columbine, and Sandy Hook, and San Bernardino, and innumerable other acts of gun violence.
Barely a few hours after Orlando police shot and killed Omar Mateen, national news outlets had his ex-wife on record explaining how her former husband suffered from mental illness. Other reports called Mateen a “sick man.” All individuals who struggle with mental health disorders have been made vulnerable by the exploitation of this information.
And it must also be acknowledged that at the epicenter of this tragedy, another American of color was killed by the police.
This shooting occurred during the prayerful observance of Ramadan. The media claims that Mateen held personal allegiance to the militant fundamentalist organization ISIS. As has been the case since 9/11 and the onset of the Iraq War, the media’s sensational conflation of militant fundamentalist organizations and the Islamic religion has made Muslims the target of fear-based attacks, misunderstanding and violence.
Each of these issues has found a voice in the headlines and on your newsfeeds. The voices are at times heartfelt and at other times graceless; below them surges a logic of both love and fear. Public displays of outrage may be cathartic, but healing occurs in the quiet moments too. Listening is the foundation of compassionate speaking, and waiting precedes thoughtful action.
I’d like to echo that Friend’s call for understanding amid the discord, stillness amid the cacophony. Let’s exercise patience with those who grieve differently than us or react to pain in ways unlike our own. The only balm for pain is love; in his letters, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. meditates upon this: “Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”