Amidst all the terrible headlines in the news recently, I have in the week following the Orlando massacre found myself pondering a recurring theme: the politics of division.
As if it wasn’t enough to be in the midst of an ugly campaign season full of divisive and bigoted rhetoric, the deadliest mass shooting in recent American history has become one more example of the schismatic mindset that seems to rule our government, our media and far too many individuals in a riled-up, angry electorate.
With the tragedy in Orlando, this raises its ugly head specifically in the question of motive. Whatever the shooter’s intent or mindset, the murder of 49 people and injury of 53 more at a “gay nightclub” in Orlando apparently has boiled down to speculation around only two motives: self-radicalized Islamic jihad / act of terror OR a violent response to a personal struggle over an unacceptable sexual orientation, aka, internalized homophobia.
To me, this debate seems little more than social and political gamesmanship in light of the immense and sorrowful tragedy of the deaths and injury to so many of my brothers and sisters in the LGBT community, my community. We have a deep and long history of facing adversity, intimidation and violence, and our community is resilient. I have faith: We will continue to dance. We have done so, in defiance of those who would “cleanse” society of us, for millennia.
But there is a natural urge to understand why this sort of tragedy occurs, and everyone from witnesses to talking heads on the media can offer speculation about the shooter’s motives.
In truth, fear is the real story. Fear of change, rejection, oppression, harm.
Fear and disenfranchisement, anguish, anger, resentment, pain, frustration, perhaps some external influences (mistreatment, propaganda, brainwashing) or situational stressors, and more than likely some mental instability: These are core causes of acts of mass murder. Someone feels frightened or outraged by an internal conflict, a force, a reality or cultural perspective that differs from and threatens to dominate their own. Lacking the skills to cope with the conflict, the power to change things or the ability and willingness to adapt, in a mindset distorted by rigidity or righteousness, they make the choice to act out in desperate, often suicidal, ways.
Where the need to find meaning extends beyond the recognition of these basic emotions — as there is ultimately deep complexity and some basic unknowability to the minds and motives of others, even when they leave behind written manifestos — I find myself considering one primary toxic ingredient: fundamentalism.
I mean that in the broadest possible way. It’s not just Islamic or Christian fundamentalism — or that of any religion — but also political and economic fundamentalism, as well as racial, cultural and environmental fundamentalism.
Strict adherence to a set of principals or beliefs, which defines the fundamentalism to which I refer, may have some benefits in terms of developing expertise and deep knowledge, but without some moderation and flexibility — traits often lacking in those who decide to end things with a fight to the death — there is often a poor outcome: righteousness. This represents a belief that ones views are the correct ones, that there is only one right way of doing something, that there are core principals that should, and will, work for everyone — if only, in the minds of the righteous, those who disagree weren’t too blind to see their ignorance, their immorality or their flaws.
This mindset is what gives energy to the politics of division, and here in the United States — where a great deal of our perspective on the world is unconsciously fundamentalist thanks to a media-saturated yet generally myopic society — we are seeing the efforts of those who would use it to disempower and frighten us into opposing corners of a political and social boxing ring.
Islamic fundamentalists have flown planes into buildings, and Christian fundamentalists have murdered doctors who perform abortions — and sometimes the women who seek them, as well. Free market fundamentalists have a history of bribing local officials so they can exploit the natural resources of impoverished developing nations without giving back to those communities. Sexual fundamentalists have beaten, maimed and killed gays and lesbians for who they love. (The term “faggot” also refers to the kindling traditionally used to burn homosexuals at the stake.)
Energy fundamentalists have drilled for fossil fuels in our most fragile ecosystems without regard for the planet’s health or the impact of their actions on climate change. Environmental and technological fundamentalists have sent “Unabomber” packages in the mail to those they oppose.
Racial and ethnic fundamentalists promoted the brutal slave trade for centuries, killed more than 6 million Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, Catholics and members of the intelligentsia in the Holocaust, and, more recently, hundreds of thousands of Bosnians, Serbs, Hutus and Tutsis in various civil wars. And “manifest destiny” fundamentalists drove the Native Americans from their homelands, even pursuing, killing and arresting those who tried to escape to Canada, as with the Nez Perce tribe.
It goes on and on and on, this attitude of “My way or the highway.” And worse, such a mindset involves the basic idea that those who beg to differ are wrong; in fact, they might be so wrong that they “deserve to die,” and the fundamentalist may believe himself possessed of the right to kill them.
It’s an act which, in the United States, is made easier by Second Amendment fundamentalists who believe semi-automatic assault rifles built for the kind of mass slaughter we’ve seen in Orlando — or in the murder of nearly two dozen first graders at Sandy Hook — ought to be available to the general public and even fight against legitimate protections such as criminal background checks for online sales of such weapons.
Pitted-in, deeply-held, righteous beliefs do little but increase the fractures and divides in our society, where there is already more than enough injury and mistrust between the Haves and the Have-Nots. And in this noxious campaign season full of vile racist, sexist, classist rhetoric on the part of Republican candidates for president, those dividing points are being exploited for the sole purpose of political advancement.
In such an environment, the troubles of Orlando — which are really the troubles of all Americans, not just the LGBT community — should not come as a surprise.
When Donald Trump says he’s “called” the likelihood of such an attack, he’s only telling a small part of the story. Indeed, he did voice concerns back at the time of the shootings in San Bernardino about the need to limit access to firearms for people who are on terrorist watch lists. But that one obvious and necessary part of the solution has been totally, and repeatedly, overshadowed by the fundamentalist language he uses to describe people of Muslim faith. (Similarly, he attacks women, Mexicans, people on welfare; his dark, bigoted rhetoric seems to know no bounds.)
Such poisonous commentary only serves to stir up the fears of many in our society who are already feeling disenfranchised, who fear the American Dream is dead, who have watched their livelihoods gutted by a long-running race to the bottom, waged by the economic fundamentalists who have given capitalism its ugly reputation across much of the globe. There is precious little good that has come from the pursuit of higher profit margins by moving the production of goods to countries with no wage standards and a dearth of laws protecting workers’ rights or enforcing safer working conditions.
One core trouble with all this fundamentalism is the immense economic and social injustice it promotes. While politicians debate whether to use a term like “radical Islam,” there are members of “radical Christianity” who would prevent gays and lesbians from marrying one another and now quietly, or even publicly, rejoice in their murder, just as promoters of “radical capitalism” seek to concentrate the vast majority of wealth into the hands of as few overlords or oligarchs as possible. Under such conditions, the value of subtly and nuance is overshadowed by a public dialogue utterly marred by black-and-white narratives.
And yet, the immense diversity represented in humanity since earliest recorded history — through the development of diverse spiritual and economic practices, languages, forms of governance, types of cuisine, styles of music, methods of storytelling and entertainment, etc., — indicates that we are not, nor shall we ever be, a black-and-white species.
We are gray. And we are every possible shade of gray at that.
Not a single one of the 8 billion of us currently alive can fit into the perfect fundamentalist mold, whatever that might be. This Orlando murderer makes that clear: Perhaps it’s possible to be a an Islamic jihadi AND to be a twice-married closeted gay or bisexual man struggling his sexual desires — and to decide to slaughter a bar full of dancing homosexuals for BOTH reasons.
At the same time, it’s important to remember that in the words of the late Poet Laureate Maya Angelou, “we are more alike than we are unalike.” We humans are cut from the same cloth, brothers and sisters in the same complex, intelligent and rather aggressive species. Consequently, if we do not work toward understanding, cooperation, sharing and compassion, we will destroy ourselves.
This is most evident in matters of economic injustice and environmental degradation, concerns that affect the public commons — the air we breathe, the water we drink, the soil that grows our food — and our access to sufficient nourishment and safe shelter. The vast majority of people desire little more than feelings of security and well-being, which are only attainable when our basic needs are met and we are not being tortured, tormented or oppressed by larger forces of violence, greed and/or indifference.
The solution is simple, though not easily achieved: Intolerant fundamentalists of all stripes must become accepting of diverse perspectives and ways of doing things, and the Haves must learn to share their great fortune with the Have-Nots.
It’s called: Live and let live. It looks like: mutual respect and sharing of resources. It results in: feelings of connection and appreciation, progress through cooperation, more enduring periods of peace.
In the end, it little matters, to the grieving, whether the mass murderer of Orlando — or the mass murderers of Aurora, San Bernardino, Newtown, Columbine, etc. — had specific and comprehendible motives. What can be said for certain is that they did not live in a world in which equality, reciprocity, compassion and love are the dominant social features.
Instead, politicians talk of “building walls,” and continually lay the blame for the world’s ills at the feet of various stigmatized communities or individuals, stirring consternation among the general populace. Perhaps it’s a strategy: A house divided, falls. By playing to the extremes, the moderate voice of Middle America gets watered down by polarization, and the fundamentalists carve out knee-jerk niches in the electorate whose members are too riled up to consider what actually constitutes good governance or social policy.
The responsibility to change this belongs to each of us. No matter how oppressed people of our various and respective backgrounds are now or have historically been, it is time to come together and work for a more equitable and just world. We can make significant progress to that end by ensuring these goals — egalitarianism, compassion and cooperation — form the basis of our everyday choices, including the votes we cast for candidates in every single elected office on the ballot.
In the process, it helps to cast aside the politics of division and see humanity for what it is: a species of immense similarity now being torn apart by what Chilean poet Pablo Neruda called “too many names.” (“I see the earth’s skin,” he wrote about nations and states, “and I know it doesn’t have a name.”)
We are all humans, and we are writing the future together. I say: Let’s try to make it a story about peace, cooperation, compassion, global environmental sustainability and the sharing of resources. As the violence begins to boil over in America and a hot summer looms, what have we got to lose?
Photography by Marlene Andrejco.