What I want to offer here is a broader perspective, one that looks at the shooting in Orlando not as simply as a terrorist attack or an attack on the LGBTQ community or a mass shooting, but as another event in the long and frequent chain of human violence.
Viewed from this very broad lens, the specific questions about the precise motives of the shooter or the detailed connections between him and various other organizations become much less important. They matter for this case in particular, but if our intention is to have a dialogue about how to have fewer such incidents in the future then we need to move beyond the specifics and talk about violence.
We tend to be guilty of "fighting the last war" in our response to mass shootings. After Sandy Hook and Aurora, the answer was "better mental health"; after Columbine, "better parenting". After Orlando, some want to use the "terrorist" label to claim that we have a particular enemy (ISIS? Radical Islamism?), and that all we have to do to prevent such attacks in the future is to eradicate that enemy.
All of this, of course, misses the point. We had plenty of shootings (including mass shootings) in the United States long before the current flavors of radicalized Islam came along, and we will likely have more long after they are gone. Many recent attacks (including Sandy Hook, Charleston, and Aurora) weren't conducted by Muslims at all, nor did they have any particular political motive. Yet the action, and the result, was much the same: innocent civilians, going about their daily lives, gunned down by an individual bent on their destruction.
Politicians who offer simple solutions are deluding us, and possibly themselves. There are no easy answers, no "if only I was in charge everything would be better" actions. Crimes of mass violence are at the same time unique and the offspring of a particular set of (very broad) factors:
Opportunity: This is the one factor that we never talk about, because there's simply nothing that can be done. If someone is bent on killing civilians and can manage to hide their plans from law enforcement ahead of time, there will always be opportunities. A sporting event. A dance club. A concert. A shopping mall. A movie theater. An airport. A train station. A school. The fact that we live in community makes us vulnerable. We can tinker with these vulnerabilities at the margins, but only for specific targets and for limited periods of time. To live in society means to live in vulnerability to one another. The key here is to live with that vulnerability, but without fear.
Means: This tends to attract a lot of heat, and not much light. There are many ways for people bent on mass destruction to cause it. Some are more effective than others, and some are easier to contain or implement than others. Homemade bombs are possible, but tricky, and efforts can be made to monitor certain kinds of chemicals in certain quantities to try to prevent another Oklahoma City. Knives and other hand implements can be deadly, but usually in small numbers; it is difficult to imagine an assailant killing 49 people in a night club with a knife.
Guns come in various types, from small pistols with few rounds to large rifles with many rounds and high rates of fire. Guns get most of the attention because, in the United States, they are the perfect means for anyone bent on causing widespread destruction: easy to acquire, easy to use, widely available, and highly destructive. We already have a few restrictions on firearms - fully automatic weapons are widely restricted from civilian ownership, for example. Further restrictions would reduce the means available for mass killings. It would not eliminate these events, but it would make them both less frequent and less deadly when they do occur.
Motive: This is the arena in which people love to engage in rampant speculation, most of it useless. More often than not (Orlando, Sandy Hook, San Bernadino, etc.), the killers die in the incident, leaving us to speculate afterwards about their motives. What particular ideology or mental illness fueled this particular rampage? We think that, if only we can get the right answer (or say the right words), we can solve the problem.
This is where we are most at sea. For law enforcement purposes, it matters whether the Orlando shooter was working with others or not. But for the purposes of trying to reduce the quantity and severity of violence in our society in the future, it's irrelevant. We shouldn't care whether this individual was a follower of ISIS, or al-Qaeda, or the KKK, or the Westboro Baptist Church. There will always be ideologies and theologies that justify, even demand, violence against innocents. There is only one thing they all have in common: Hate.
On Sunday night as we were still sifting through information about the shootings, I happened to be watching the Tony Awards and was treated to Lin-Manuel Miranda's moving and emotional sonnet, which he read in lieu of an acceptance speech. The poem is anchored in an anthem of the LBGTQ community, "Love is love", and so it is. But the opposite is also true: hate is hate, whether born of Christian or Muslim ideology, whether directed at women or blacks or sexual minorities or other nations or people of different faiths or members of different political parties.
If you're looking for one root cause to these acts of inhumane violence, here it is: hatred. Hatred of particular groups, hatred of others who are different, hatred of random strangers, even hatred of self. Hatred, as Star Wars reminded us, leads to suffering - for both the hated and the hater.
The thing about hatred is that it feeds on itself. Read, if you can, this Storify compilation of live tweets from a recent rally for Donald Trump. The anger and hatred, as the correspondent reported, were "palpable". Insults, curses, angry words, threats, coming both from the candidate and the crowd - all combined to raise the collective level of hatred far beyond simply the sum total of the individuals. The more anger and fear we immerse ourselves in, the more we hate. The more hatred we encounter in others, the more we hate. And make no mistake - there is hatred inside all of us.
Martin Luther King Jr. reminded us of this many years ago:
The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it.Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate. So it goes. Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.If you want a more modern example, I encourage you to read this speech by the Lt. Governor of Utah. It is moving, it is eloquent, and it makes all the right points.
If we want to have less violence in our society, the answer doesn't lie in defeating an ideology or a religion. It doesn't rest on electing a strong man who promises peace but delivers only anger. It doesn't rest, in fact, on who we elect at all. It doesn't even rest, ultimately, on whether we put more money into mental health, or do better work with terrorist watch lists, or restrict guns - although all of those may be good things to do. The answer lies in us, every day. Every day we face opportunities to love more, to be kind, to come together. And we face temptations to give into fear, to express our anger, to hate someone a little bit more. We together decide which it will be.
Which will you choose today?