In tragedy’s wake, a fragile balance
Following the worst mass shooting in modern American history, the nation must strike a balance when moving forward and avoid pitting American against American.
"Clearly, this was not just an attack on the LGBT community in Orlando, Florida, but an attack on America. Together, our nation must stand united against terror and hatred, and not permit prejudice, violence and fear to have the upper hand over the American ideals of compassion, liberty and freedom." These words were from U.S. Representative Corrine Brown of Florida following the Orlando massacre on June 12.
Words and phrases like the ones used in Brown’s statement-- “attack on America” and “united”-- signal the emotional desire to take on the tragedy not just as a local resident and lawmaker, but as an American and a federal lawmaker. Statements such as these were issued by dozens of public officials following the murder of 49 innocent people in Orlando, but the actions of some lawmakers do not match their comforting and uniting words.
After the attacks of September 11, 2001, America was never the same again. Major changes to U.S. domestic and foreign policy took root. Airport security became tighter at home. We began to track down the terrorist networks that supported Al Qaeda. Citizens expect that they must take their shoes off at the airport and commuters are reminded that if they “see something, say something.” Neighbors helped neighbors. President Bush stood shoulder to shoulder with all of the local leaders in New York, both Republicans and Democrats. We also managed to treat the tragedy as a call to action. There were forces in the world we could not control—forces that wanted to kill Americans and damage our freedom. Political parties did not waver in the immediate and long term fights to make America safer.
Within hours of the attack on the gay nightclub Pulse in Orlando, the politics of the response to the tragedy made headlines. Is this inherently wrong? No. Our leaders would be ineffective if they could not talk about how to make changes to avoid such tragedies again, while still maintaining empathy and unity. The problem we face in the hours, days and week following Orlando is that many leaders have no interest in unity. Republicans called President Obama weak for his anti-terror policies and Democrats labeled the largely Republican supported National Rifle Association “complicit in terror.”
Rhetoric such as this does not solve the problems that urgently need to be addressed for our nation. We have seen almost as many mass shootings this year as there have been days. This is not a situation that can be solved with one action. As many commentators have observed, there is an inexplicable desire among elected leaders and their constituents to label these acts.
The attack in Orlando was not solely a crime against the LGBT community. This was not solely a terrorist attack. This was not only about the availability of guns. In order to address all of these problems, we must work together and realize that there are valid arguments being made on all of these fronts, and there are solutions to at least some of the systemic failures that led to this tragedy.
Attacks like the ones we have witnessed in Orlando, San Bernardino and Boston seek not only to kill, but also to divide. Any group becomes weaker and ineffective when the people and leaders within it are divided. The United States is not immune to division. We cannot allow these forces to continue to pit us against one another. There is a balance to be had in order to debate the merits of change on all fronts, from gun control to counter terrorism, while still respecting those who have lost a brother, sister, son, daughter, friend or loved one. This balance must fall between expressing empathy and exerting strength, both necessary responses to an attack. Neither can be more important than the other, as empty empathy and misplaced political strength lead to the division we sometimes face.
We always say that victims must not die in vain—that we must move forward with the resolve to make meaningful change. The divisions in America brought by dueling ideals have prevented us from bringing about that change. Let us respect those who perished by conversing civilly and with the intention to make real change happen. Pick up the phone; call your elected officials in Washington. Let them know that you want to see them debate the bills and amendments that will come forth in response to Orlando. They at least owe the fruitful exercise of democracy to the lives of the 49 people killed. Their debate, indeed their action, will be a demonstration to the forces that seek to divide us that we refuse to allow our ideological differences to tear us apart.
Kris Schneider is a sophomore in the School of Communication.