Orlando was the worst mass shooting in US history. It looks set to become the most politically charged as well.
On Monday British columnist Owen Jones walked out on a Sky News interview about the massacre after a heated exchange in which the hosts refused to acknowledge that the attack was specifically targeted at the LGBT community.
Indeed there was something peculiar about the hosts’ insistence that Orlando was an attack on “the freedom of all people to try and enjoy themselves”.
The problem is that this attack presses so many buttons. First, it’s yet another mass-shooting in a country now notorious for them. Second, there’s the home-grown terrorism angle, with the killer invoking ISIS. Third, it is undeniably a specific attack on a gay nightclub, with unconfirmed reports from patrons that they had seen the killer in the same bar a dozen times before.
When responding to a tragedy, people generally and the media in particular turn to pre-existing narratives to inform their responses. And despite the obviously homophobic nature of this attack, mass murder of homosexuals is simply not a common or contemporary narrative for the public to adopt.
Much more common are the no-doubt insufficiently publicised assaults and murders of LGBT individuals, hate-crimes that paint a sickening picture of true homophobia in the US.
Issues such as same-sex marriage may be fiercely contested on philosophical, religious, and ethical grounds, but such disagreements can never mitigate or diminish the evil perpetrated against innocent people on the basis of their sexual orientation, identity, or merely for “being different”.
The problem with the Orlando attack is that it blurs the lines between multiple narratives. As Jones went on to explain in a subsequent column:
If a terrorist with a track record of expressing hatred of and disgust at Jewish people had walked into a synagogue and murdered 50 Jewish people, we would rightly describe it as both terrorism and an anti-Semitic attack. If a Jewish guest on television had tried to describe it as such, it would be disgraceful if they were not only contradicted, but shouted down as they did so.
The analogy is apt. We have no difficulty understanding that anti-Semitism and terrorism can and often do go hand-in-hand.
But the LGBT community is not like the Jewish people. LGBT encompasses many things: a sub-culture, a set of identities, and a set of behaviours. On the one hand, activists have promoted the idea that homosexuality is a normal part of the spectrum of sexual orientation. Gay people are just people, get over it.
On the other hand, activism, sub-culture and minority status separate the LGBT community from the rest of society. As Jones told the Sky News presenter: “you don’t understand this because you’re not gay.”
It’s not likely that the Sky News presenter is philosophically or religiously opposed to the LGBT movement. He more likely just made the mistake of adopting the wrong narrative. He decided to go with the “gay people are just people” theme, which means Orlando is an attack on us all, on our way of life and our freedoms.
In other contexts we are applauded for showing solidarity with the LGBT community, for being “blind” to sexual orientation. But in this instance otherwise well-meaning and ideologically aligned people have picked the wrong kind of solidarity, a solidarity that normalises the LGBT community but in the process diminishes the specifically homophobic nature of the attack. This conflicts with the LGBT community’s own narrative of victimisation, in which the massacre is an extension of homophobic violence more generally.
The attack on Charlie Hebdo last year was not interpreted as an anti-cartoonist or anti-satirist attack. Rather, satire and freedom of expression more generally were interpreted as a fundamental part of Western democratic freedoms. Hence the Je suis Charlie moment in which people made the connection between the murder of the satirists and collective freedoms.
People have tried to apply the same model of collective freedoms to the Orlando massacre, but what generic freedoms were the patrons of the nightclub expressing? It’s disingenuous to say that the people at Pulse nightclub were killed for dancing or for having fun, as if the killer could have stumbled into any popular nightspot and opened fire.
This tension between the normalisation and the differentiation of the LGBT movement helps to explain one aspect of the ensuing anger at people who refuse to recognise the homophobic motivation for the attack.
The ISIS connection
LGBT activists are also protesting what they describe as the “gay erasure” of the Orlando massacre:
On social media, there is not just grief but also anger on the part of LGBT people, not just at the terrible loss of life, but of the erasure of LGBT people from a narrative that is centered on them, that has been visited upon LGBTs during Pride month…
On television this morning, there has been no one calling Mateen’s massacre out as a dreadful act of violence against LGBT people. It may be an “act of terror… But who was targeted exactly—and why? Why the resistance to saying it? If it was an act of terror, it was also a hate crime.
We have already described how some in the media adopted a collectivist response to the massacre, but there is more to the “gay erasure” than this.
Firstly, the ISIS connection draws on the narrative of home-grown terrorism. ISIS and other Islamic terrorist organisations are, since 9/11, understood to be deeply hostile to America and its allies. Their scope is not limited to homophobia, anti-Semitism, subjugation of women, or brutalisation of opposing religious groups.
Home-grown terrorists are perceived as the equivalent of a fifth columnist or enemy agent. They may be born in the US, but their allegiance lies elsewhere. As such, they constitute an existential threat to the nation.
Even if people recognise the homophobic nature of the attack, the killer’s self-professed allegiance to ISIS means that he is an implicit threat to everyone. If it weren’t for the ISIS connection, it would be possible to class this as an instance of homophobic domestic terrorism – akin to the racially motivated Charleston church shooting.
Likewise, if an ISIS-inspired attack included Jewish targets the anti-Semitic component would again be subsumed in the more general perception that America as a whole was under attack by an external enemy.
But so long as the ISIS connection remains credible, it will continue to overshadow homophobia as the more salient aspect to the murders.
The religious response
A third cause of LGBT anger and frustration is the reluctance of religious and conservative groups and leaders to emphasise the homophobic nature of the attack, or to even mention the LGBT community in relation to the victims or the location.
Republicans in Congress have been criticised for offering prayers but failing to identify the recipients of those prayers as LGBT. Pope Francis has been criticised for failing to mention the identity of the victims in his expression of “deepest feelings of horror and condemnation, of pain and turmoil before this new manifestation of homicidal folly and senseless hatred.”
It’s hard to say to what extent the religious response has (rightly or wrongly) bought into the ISIS connection as the predominant theme of the Orlando massacre. But the response from religious opponents of LGBT ideology is also guided by a basic respect for our common humanity despite ideological differences.
The Pope and the Dalai Lama are each in his own way opposed to the popular view of human sexuality promoted by LGBT activists. They therefore address themselves to the victims as human beings first and foremost, in accordance with their own religious and ethical principles.
This is a fine line to tread, and too often people err either by letting the ideological conflict diminish their appreciation for the horror of the attack, or by thinking that the horror of the attack must carry into ideological vindication for the victims.
You don’t have to agree with LGBT ideology to recognise that LGBT people are unjustly targeted and victimised. Nor does a recognition of this injustice mean you have to accept the ideology of the victimised group.
This isn’t enough for many LGBT activists who already label even civilised and intelligent opposition to their ideology as homophobic, and view it as a morally culpable contributor to violent homophobic acts. In the midst of grief and outrage, measured expressions of condolence from ideological enemies are hard to stomach.
Even at this early stage it is troubling to see so much conflict in the wake of an already atrocious act. Nations typically pull together, however briefly, and put aside their differences in response to violence. But this relies in part on the sharing of a common narrative.
With the LGBT community feeling not only targeted but also denied their identity as victims of this atrocity, there’s a real risk that the Orlando mass-shooting will further divide an already fractured society as it struggles to agree on who even owns the tragedy.
Zac Alstin is associate editor of MercatorNet. He also blogs at zacalstin.com