The murders in Orlando

by Michael Sean Winters

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The statement from the Vatican said Pope Francis was filled with "the deepest feelings of horror and condemnation" in the face of the "homicidal folly and senseless hatred" perpetrated in Orlando, Fla.

I love the Holy Father, but in this instance, he was premature: We do not know yet if this act of violence was "senseless." Of course, it is a pastor's job to console and to encourage solidarity in such situations, not to parse the intentions of the perpetrators. But, this language of senselessness is dangerous, morally dangerous, when it finds its way into cultural expression and the worldviews of politicians.

The man who perpetrated the attack called 911 and pledged his support for ISIS, and ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack. His former wife says the man was unstable, and other family members say he had a special hatred of gays and lesbians -- but his wife is not a psychologist and hatred is not always evidence of mental health problems. As this article from a couple of weeks back indicated, politicians on both sides of the aisle like to call for an increased focus on mental health issues in the wake of these mass killings, but that may not be the answer. As the article notes:

While acknowledging that some of the country's worst mass shooters were psychotic -- the Colorado theater gunman, James Holmes, with his orange-dyed hair; the Virginia Tech shooter, Seung Hui Cho, whom a judge ordered to get treatment -- experts say the vast majority of such killers did not have any classic form of serious mental illness, such as schizophrenia or psychosis.

Instead, they were more often ruthless sociopaths whose ­behavior, while unfathomable, can't typically be treated as mental illness.

I asked a psychologist friend about this distinction between a sociopath and a psychopath, as it pertains to mass murderers. She replied by email: "I think those terms are synonymous -- both refer to Antisocial Personality Disorder which is still a psychiatric diagnosis but not one that has been amenable to the usual treatment interventions. It would be extremely difficult to get someone in to a psychiatric facility with that diagnosis as it is not considered an acute disorder."

In fact, the gun lobby fosters this belief that mass murder is always tied to a mental illness. That allows them to deflect the body politic from the obvious policy prescription: banning assault weapons. Republicans wish to avoid this obvious step because they are beholden to the NRA, and Democrats are keen to push the mental health angle because they want to be seen to be doing something even though they know only steps like an assault weapons ban would help, and that such a ban is unlikely given popular support for gun rights in this country.

There is an additional, and deeper, reason why we prefer to think that people like the mass murderer in Orlando was crazy and not merely evil. It is foolish to try and probe the intentions of a crazy person, and many people have a hard time reconciling such evil acts with, well, evil. We want to believe we could have prevented the atrocity. We want to believe that people are not so hateful. We want to think there is something we can do to prevent such atrocities in the future. Just the other day there was an article about the renewed popularity of Mein Kampf and the debate about its publication. We forget that very few analysts for the foreign ministries of the world read this book, or took it seriously, when it mattered, in the 1930s. It was as if no one could believe anyone would be so hateful, but to be clear: Hitler spelled out his intentions in black and white and for all to read. No one should have been surprised.

Similarly, ISIS has very specific goals, and while those goals may be evil, they are not senseless. There is no way of reconciling the cultural and moral vision of ISIS, or Hamas, or Hezbollah, or Al Qaeda, with the cultural and moral vision of the United States. The Islamic State (ISIS) and other Islamic hate groups do not embrace a concept of freedom that permits gay men to be dancing with each other at 2 a.m. Indeed, Hamas killed one of its own commanders earlier this year when he was suspected of engaging in a gay relationship. If this killer in Orlando was motivated by ISIS, he did not merely go into that venue armed with an assault rifle. He went armed with a coherent, and despicable, moral belief, that gays deserve to die. He went armed with a commitment to terror.

The Israelis, of course, have dealt with vicious attacks like this since 1948, and Jews since time immemorial. They, too, have had to grown accustomed not only to defending hard targets like military installations but soft targets like discos and restaurants and buses. They, too, see civilians murdered by Islamic extremists. There is a big difference though, and that is a difference of scale. Given Israel's population, the death toll in Orlando would have to be 159 to be the equivalent of the four killed in a Tel Aviv restaurant just last week. And, the U.S. would have to get used to losing 159 victims to terrorism with some regularity. Those who champion Israel's enemies, and who blithely and routinely denounce Israel's security apparatus, may think twice if events like Orlando become as common here as they have been in Tel Aviv. And LGBT advocates know or should know what Jews know: Throughout history, their small numbers relative to the ambient population combined with their divergence from the mainstream on something so essential to human personality and group identity as sexual preference and religious belief, have always made them an easy scapegoat.

Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, President of the USCCB, issued a statement that called the violence "unspeakable." Interestingly, his statement did not mention that the victims of this attack were gays and lesbians, nor that the attack, whatever else it was, was an exercise in homophobia. It did not happen at a Walmart. Of course, many bishops have a hard time even saying the words "gays and lesbians," preferring the offensive and bizarre locution "people who experience same-sex attraction." As my colleague David Gibson points out, after last year's attack on Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, S.C., Archbishop Kurtz had no reluctance in naming the victims nor in denouncing the racism that motivated the killing. Really: If you are so tone deaf that you do not realize that the refusal to refer to people as they refer to themselves is offensive, especially when that same group of people has just been the object of a violent and murderous attack, stop pretending to any claim to moral leadership in the society and just go away.  

Archbishop Blase Cupich of Chicago mentioned the need for solidarity with "our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters." He also echoed Pope Francis' call to examine the roots of such violence "including easy access to deadly weapons," a point missing from the USCCB statement. Surely, even the current leadership of the USCCB is not so far in bed with the Republican Party that asking the bishops to denounce the ready availability of guns is asking too much! Or is it? The fact that it did not occur to the drafters of the statement speaks volumes.

I will also note that Bishop David Zubik of Pittsburgh has issued a statement this morning that not only mentions that the attack was perpetrated against gays and lesbians, but links the victimization of the LGBT community with that of the Muslim community. "My sincere hope and fervent prayer is that no one of us will diminish or own humanity by taking out our grief or anger on any group of people," the bishop stated. "Our Muslim neighbors are grieving over this tragedy as much as our gay and lesbian neighbors. We are all God's children."

I am not sure that the grief of the LGBT community is precisely like that of the Muslim community this morning, but I see +Zubik's point. It puts one in mind of the great Golda Meir's observation: "We can forgive the Arabs for killing our children. We cannot forgive them for forcing us to kill their children. We will only have peace with the Arabs when they love their children more than they hate us."

The murderer in Orlando went into the Pulse nightclub armed with hatred, with an automatic assault rifle, and with a set of extreme religious beliefs. You can find any of those three in any country in the world, but the combination is especially lethal and is likely to be used again and again in the West to frighten us into doing the thing the fanatics most want, conduct an even bigger war in the Mideast. That, too, is the implication of Mr. Trump's verdict on the shooting, that it is the inability of President Obama to utter the words "radical Islamic terrorism" that is the underlying cause of yesterday's massacre. Lord, save us all, save the future victims both here and in the Mideast, from that moron of a man. For the rest of us, there are no easy answers.

The struggle against this fanaticism will be long and arduous. Yes, we should not meet hate with more hate, but we must take these zealots at their word when they announce their intention to kill innocents and to kill us all if they had the means. Their hatred is not the result of a misunderstanding. Some abridgement of our privacy may be needed, and it is a price worth paying. What we can't do is let the terrorists win, and the only way they can win is through terror. They do not have enough weapons to kill us all. They do not have enough hate to break all the bonds of charity that connect us. They can win only if they can scare us into becoming something we are not. It is entirely in our power to resist those who wish to stoke the fear and the hatred. Will we?

[Michael Sean Winters is a Visiting Fellow at Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]

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