Presidents are called upon, in moments of great horror and great sorrow, to speak of love and solidarity.
President Obama did just that on Sunday afternoon, when he responded to the worst mass shooting in modern American history—“an act of terror and
an act of hate”—by declaring, “In the face of hate and violence, we will love one another.”
The president recognized that those who died at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando were members of a community of lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgender people, and allies who gathered in the sort of dance club that has always been more than just a dance club. He spoke movingly of what the club scene means for people who have historically faced discrimination and, yes, hatred, because of their sexuality.
“This is an especially heartbreaking day for all our friends—our fellow Americans—who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. The shooter targeted a nightclub where people came together to be with friends, to dance and to sing, and to live. The place where they were attacked is more than a nightclub—it is a place of solidarity and empowerment where people have come together to raise awareness, to speak their minds, and to advocate for their civil rights,” said Obama. “So this is a sobering reminder that attacks on any American—regardless of race, ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation—is an attack on all of us and on the fundamental values of equality and dignity that define us as a country. And no act of hate or terror will ever change who we are or the values that make us Americans.”
Obama’s recognition that the values that make us Americans are shaped by a sense of love and solidarity was beautiful. And good.
But what makes rhetoric beautiful and good is an understanding that words that are spoken might lead to action. The words must express more than sympathy; they must express a vision for how to overcome tragedy. So Obama spoke of necessary action—explaining, “Today marks the most deadly shooting in American history. The shooter was apparently armed with a handgun and a powerful assault rifle. This massacre is therefore a further reminder of how easy it is for someone to get their hands on a weapon that lets them shoot people in a school, or in a house of worship, or a movie theater, or in a nightclub. And we have to decide if that’s the kind of country we want to be. And to actively do nothing is a decision as well.”
Across America, people joined their president in speaking up. There were dozens of vigils from Sheridan Square in New York to the Castro in San Francisco. LGBTQ Muslims joined the vigils, while Muslim leaders reacted with horror to reports that the gunman was a Muslim security guard who in the last moments of his troubled life pledged allegiance to ISIS and other terror groups.
“No religion justifies such a senseless act of terror. All decent people must condemn this hateful act that claimed the lives of 50 people and injured 53 more. Sadly, Orlando has now joined Aurora, Charleston, Newtown, Oak Ridge, and many other communities rocked by gun violence. This is yet another reminder that Congress must pass meaningful, common-sense gun reforms that include a ban on assault weapons, which have no place in civilian hands. Members of Congress must stand up to the NRA,” argued Congressman Keith Ellison, the Minnesota Democrat who was the first Muslim elected to Congress. “I am grieving with the LGBT community. The community has been a target for hate for decades, but has seen meaningful advances in the past few years. That progress could not be more evident than seeing millions of Americans, gay and straight alike, celebrate LGBT Pride this weekend. This tragedy will not suppress the love and compassion that the LGBT community is centered on. Going forward, we must continue to stand against all hate crimes. No one deserves to be harmed because of their race, gender, religion, or sexual orientation.”
Wisconsin Congressman Mark Pocan, a gay Democrat who serves as vice chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, bluntly declared that, instead of “another moment of silence” (as Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, a key NRA ally, proposed Monday) what is needed is “a moment of action.” Inaction, explained Pocan, “disrespects the lives of the people who were killed not just yesterday, but every day by gun violence. There may be blood in the streets, but if Congress continues to fail to act, we will have blood on our hands.”
Congressional Democrats would not be silenced. On Monday night, they chanted “Where’s the bill?” on the House floor — demanding a debate on gun legislation.
The protest came after House Speaker Paul Ryan tried to begin and end discussion of the mass shooting with a moment of silence. Assistant Democratic Leader Jim Clyburn, D-South Carolina, tried to ask Ryan when bills addressing gun violence would be taken up by the chamber. Ryan interrupted Clyburn as the South Carolina congressman was referencing the killing of nine people at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church a year ago this week. The speaker ruled that the veteran civil rights activist’s question was out of order.
At that point the chamber erupted as Democrats chanted “No leadership!” and “Where’s the bill? Where’s the bill? Where’s the bill?”
Some Democrats, led by Connecticut Congressman Jim Himes, left the floor in protest, rather than participate in Ryan’s charade. Himes, who represents a district near where 20 children and six adults were slain in 2012 at a Newtown elementary school, told reporters he was frustrated with House inaction following mass shootings. The congressman referred to House moments of silence as “obnoxious expressions of smug incompetence.”
As always, however, there were defenders of an indefensible status quo who objected not just to protests but even to the calmest suggestions-made in a moment of shock and grief-that something must be done.
We know by now that there is nothing more political than an immediate denunciation of any call for action as the “politicization of a tragedy.” It is a crude calculus. Those who rush to silence debate are saying: Do not let the stark recognition of our circumstance, and the pain that extends from it, cause us to take necessary steps to address hatred and gun violence. Obama called this calculus out last fall, following a mass shooting at an Oregon community college, when he said that gun violence “is something we should politicize.”
No one—with the possible exception of Donald Trump—can be so naive as to imagine that raving about “political correctness” will make us safe. Massacres of this kind invite conversations about intelligence failures and security challenges. Some will take those conversations to crude and bizarre extremes, as the presumptive Republican presidential nominee has with what Politico describes as “fact-challenged” attacks on President Obama and Hillary Clinton.
But, as the president indicated in his speech, the killings in Orlando raise reasonable questions about specific steps that address hated and violence. Those questions can be asked. Indeed, they must be asked, as they guide us toward right and necessary action. As Pocan says, “Across the country people are asking themselves what they can do to help and what can be done to prevent such a devastating event from happening again.”
If there are haters who aspire to violence, would it not be wise to make it difficult for them to obtain military-style assault weapons? If there are Americans who are targeted because of their race, ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation, would it not be wise to address hatred by banning discrimination? Would it not be appropriate to stop telling the lie that says equal protection under law is some “special right” accorded by members of the LGBTQ community? And would it not be wonderful if powerful Republicans such as House Speaker Ryan and Senate Majority Leader McConnell would recognize that Wisconsin Senator Tammy Baldwin is right when she says: “As we offer our thoughts and prayers, we also must come to terms with the fact that they are not enough.”
“This was not only a horrific attack on the LGBT community, it was an attack on the freedoms we all hold dear,” explained Baldwin, the first openly gay member elected to the Senate. “The question now for America is are we going to come together and stand united against hate, gun violence and terrorism? I understand it may not be easy, but I know we are better than this and it is past time to act together.”
It is right and necessary to speak in times like these of love and solidarity.
It is equally right and necessary to identify the steps that must be taken to express that love and solidarity in practical terms.
It is right and necessary to take those steps with a sense of urgency—and with a faith that, in the face of hate and violence, Americans can and must love one another.