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Orlando: The Danger Of Facile Theories And Their False Comforts

17/06/2016 8:27 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:27 AM IST
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Crowd members hold up candles during a vigil downtown for the victims of a mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub Monday, June 13, 2016, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

With 49 dead and about as many critically injured, the Orlando massacre is undeniably a gruesome act of hatred. From conflicting, yet scarcely comprehensive, political responses to editorials weighing questions of gun control, homophobia and religiously motivated acts of terror, condolences and condemnation have poured in. The anxieties, and their expressions, are understandable in a situation when the entire world is trying to come to terms the horrific attack. The losses are immense and permanent. But even as we grieve, the Orlando Massacre has raised some serious doubts about where our fears might find a refuge.

Mass shootouts involving lone gunmen aren't new to the United States. But the Orlando massacre, despite its close resemblance with many others that preceded it, wasn't entirely the same. In a world infested with intolerance and bigotry, Pulse, a gay club in Orlando, Florida, is an expression of a hope in humanity; the hope that doesn't ask people to be apologetic about celebrating their pride in being different. The people who were present on that fateful night -- the dead, the injured and the ones who managed to escape - accepted and admired the manifold ways in which people could relate to their sexuality. The perpetrator is another puzzle of yet uncertain aspects -- a man with an alleged history of mental instability and professed homophobia, with legal access to weapons otherwise deemed appropriate for extreme combat, and belonging to a community which has unfairly borne the brunt of the violence perpetrated by some of its members.

We need to be wary of easy explanations of religiously motivated terror and homophobia... falling prey to prejudices wherein entire communities bear the burden of collective suspicion.

We are hurt, the pain is real. It is all the more necessary now to raise questions and have doubts about absolute assertions. Hatred and violence can't be normalized by locking them in stereotypical categories that suit vested agendas. The occurrence of such incidents must not be somehow uncontrollable by associating them with lone gunmen whose activities could not have been monitored. Neither should we lose sight of the fact that the site of violence wasn't accidental. This would be an ignorant denial of the intolerance that the LGBTQ community is constantly subjected to. We must not at the same time deny a systematic failure on the part of the government to address the issue of gun violence which makes America a particular case of vulnerability. We need to be wary of easy explanations of religiously motivated terror and homophobia; more so when it means falling prey to prejudices wherein entire communities bear the burden of collective suspicion.

It is rather unfortunate, though hardly surprising, that the Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump lashed out at President Obama for not using the words "radical Islamic terrorism." Indeed there are reports linking the attacker, Omar Mateen, strangely at the same time, to ISIS and Hezbollah (on opposite ends of the Sunni-Shia divide) and the Boston bombers. However, branding the attacks as an outcome of radical Islamic terrorism at this stage is problematic. Firstly, the reports are all tentative; and previous investigations made by FBI had twice ruled out a connection. Secondly, professing personal allegiance to a particular organization does not amount to a direct indication of an organized and planned attack involving known terrorist outfits. Putting aside factual inconsistencies, it would be grossly incorrect and unjust to account for the violence in Mateen's religious beliefs alone, overlooking the fact that he was born in America, and held an American citizenship. This is to say that we need to look beyond the Islamophobic discourse into more pertinent structural problems in the American society itself that could breed such hatred.

For how long can Americans deny the guilt of being silent accomplices in these massacres?

This brings us to the issue of access to guns. An assault rifle and a semi-automatic handgun were used. Both these weapons were reportedly purchased legally. Just to have a fair idea of where the gun legislations have gone wrong -- the assault rifle, AR 15, is an improved version of what was used in Vietnam to script an entire chapter of brutal violence and killings. No wonder, America witnessed 43 shootings on the same Sunday that the Orlando massacre took place. It is time to identify the actual factors that put America at the mercy of lone gunmen, and not invoke the fictional fear of radical Islam. So far Americans have valorized the illusion of the safety and freedom created by easy access to guns. But for how long can Americans deny the guilt of being silent accomplices in these massacres?

Purposeful exaggeration of radical Islam and the split opinion on gun laws raise some crucial questions. But, in our preoccupation with nuances, what we might risk to miss out on is something that separates this shootout from similar acts in the past. The attack forms a part of the still existing sense of intolerance and discrimination afflicting American society. The comments made by a Sacramento pastor praising the Orlando massacre bears testimony to what still is very much a part of American sensibilities. Whether or not Mateen was homophobic, one thing is certain: homophobia is not exclusive to any religion. Whatever the investigations reveal, the LGBTQ community was at the receiving end of hatred this time, and in all likelihood particularly chosen. No doubt, over the years, decisive progress has been made in ensuring the rights and dignity of life to the LGBTQ community. However, acknowledging difference is one thing and internalizing the diversity in the American sensibility is another. Till the time prejudice and hatred exist, and a particular community is systematically subjected to it, mere acceptance of difference would mean little.

In such circumstances, prejudiced elements will attempt to find validation of their bigotry, taking advantage of the unfinished investigations and uncertain facts.

It is apparent that there is an overwhelming will to diagnose what lies at the root of such a massacre. Nevertheless, it's a challenge that requires more than a singular and sentimental response. More importantly, there are genuine reasons to be apprehensive. The pain and anger are seething; opinions still tender. In such circumstances, prejudiced elements will attempt to find validation of their bigotry, taking advantage of the unfinished investigations and uncertain facts. Innocent people have endured much loss already. What is pertinent, therefore, is to resist the consolation of unqualified conclusions; rash and hollow reforms will not make people feel safe again.

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