The shooting of 49 men and women in a gay nightclub in Orlando has left people around the world shocked and exasperated. For decades gay bars have been centers of community, self-expression, and solidarity for a culturally marginalized group. Last week’s events served as a brutal reminder of the hatred that still exists for the LGBT community within certain segments of American society. It was a hate crime of unconscionable proportions, shaking the sense of security that the LGBT community in America has slowly built for itself over the last four decades.
The important juridical rights that LGBT people have gained in recent years may have lulled many of us into a false sense that, as a community, they are openly accepted in American society. Yet last week’s violence reinforced the brutal reality that, for LGBT people, living an open, proud, and unapologetic life is still a radical political act. Anti-gay discrimination can take many forms- from the constant threat of physical violence in public spaces to the continued denial of access to social services. Last week in Orlando saw intolerance taken to an unbearable extreme. If one believes that the fight for LGBT equality finishes with a supreme court ruling, one is sorely mistaken. The fight to transform hetero-normative culture in America and throughout the world has just begun, a struggle that must be passed on to future generations.
The Orlando shooting brought together two other strains of pressure in American life: the easy access to gun ownership and the problem of radical jihadism. Regarding the notion that this was an “ISIS Inspired attack,” it should be noted that the shooter was a homophobic (potentially self-hating) wife-beater with a long history of mental instability. This was a man on the political, legal, and emotional fringes of society. While he may have wrapped his hatred in the flag of ISIS, he was an American made monster, and his turn toward terror must be grounded in the dynamics of American life. Dismissing him as a foreigner, an outside exception, is not only factually inaccurate, but does nothing to explain how such hatred was fostered from within the confines of American society. The shooter was born in New York, not Kabul, and the distinction matters.
What belies rational explanation is why someone who was on an FBI terror watch list was able to legally acquire an assault rifle. Indeed, it is inexplicable that anyone should be able to acquire such an instrument of death, regardless of their legal standing in society. Simply put, guns do not deter violence, they promote it. They provide those who want to do others harm the tools to inflict the maximum amount of damage with as little effort as possible. Despite overwhelming evidence that there is a direct correlation between the reduction of gun ownership and the reduction of violent crime in a society, the American political establishment won’t take even small steps at meaningful gun reform. The financial power of the gun lobby, as well as the entrenched beliefs of red state voters, deters politicians from passing laws that would have prevented the Orlando shooter from getting access to the deadly tools he used to kill 49 people.
The NRA and its supporters prefer a 19th century world in which we all walk around with guns on our hips, ready to blow each other away at the nearest sign of trouble. In their minds, America is Dodge City, and we are all Wyatt Earp protecting house and hearth. This is a regressive form of thought, because it is grounded in hatred of the central government, a constant suspicion of one’s neighbor, and a recidivist fear that open rebellion against the state may be necessary. In a progressive and caring society, tools of death should be impossible to acquire. The ideology of the NRA must thus be challenged at every turn, called out for the kind of militant extremism it clearly is.
After the calamity of the Second World War, it was the United States who took control of the global economic and political system. As the major architect of international law and governance (the UN and the Hague), with military bases around the world designed to “check” communist influence, and with financial tentacles extending through “development” programs across multiple continents (the World Bank and the IMF), America became the literal and figurative center of everything. The incredible cultural prowess America possessed- not just Hollywood and Network Television, Coca Cola and McDonalds, but New York City, High Fashion, High Art, Warhol, Pollock, Davis, Coltrane, the 1960s, Free Love, Steinham, Freidan, and all the rest- only further secured American hegemony in the realm of ideas and imagination.
Yet now America no longer seems capable of providing even the illusion of global leadership. With anemic GDP growth, a white middle-class left behind by globalization, a black middle class still fighting for equal representation under the law, major cities economically bankrupt and wracked by unending gang violence, growing racial re-segregation, political gridlock at the highest organs of power, and a major political party putting forth a neo-fascist as a presidential candidate, America is at a tipping point. Its domestic economic systems can no longer provide a dignified life to a middle class losing out in the race of globalization, while its foreign policy has created the very terrorist forces it seeks to eradicate. American interventionism has not only destabilized an entire region of the world, but it has alienated vast swaths of the global community, from the Islamic Middle East to the Chinese Middle Kingdom.
Now, America seems destined to be wracked by continued “lone-wolf attacks,” inspired or directly organized by a terrorist group that its very own foreign policy created. America has been reduced to chasing its own tail around the world, not realizing that further intervention only spawns further hatred, the whole globe becoming a potential quagmire for American forces to slowly sink into. At home, easy access to guns, few efforts at social integration, economic marginalization throughout the heartland, and the Reaganist hollowing out of government services all combine to ensure that more lone wolf attacks will continue by the socially marginalized and the ideologically extreme.
This is a time in which newscasters, politicians, and pundits grope around for answers, coming up with nothing but tired platitudes and calls for further foreign intervention. Their inability to recognize America for what it is- a dying Empire- ensures that they cannot ever get to the root of the problem. Attacks rip across network headlines, fear bubbles up, the votive candles are burned, calls for reform emerge and are then quickly forgotten, the “War Against Terror” rages onward…and nothing but unending violence results. The most powerful nation in the world is at a loss to explain the world system it itself created.
In this American nightmare, in which an embittered West gropes for retaliatory measures against a deeply divided and still de-colonizing Islamic world, it is only the innocent that suffer. From an Orlando nightclub to the streets of Falluja, men, women, and children are shot, bombed, maimed, lied to, enslaved, and disgraced.
We have not the tools, nor the intellect, to even grope for peace.
Mark McConaghy is a doctoral candidate in the East Asian Studies Department at The University of Toronto. He studies aesthetics, political economy, and the dynamics of historical change in the 20th century.