Reflections on Orlando: Terror Does Not Discriminate

Terrance Heath

My phone started buzzing almost as soon as the lights went down. I was in Baltimore with my family to watch Cirque du Soleil’s “Toruk” when the alerts started coming in about another mass shooting, this time at a nightclub in Orlando, Florida. We’d just found our seats, after getting through security, where my electronics bag was searched for weapons.

I put my phone away as the overture started, but it started buzzing again, this time more insistently. I stole a quick glance and froze when I saw that this time the alerts and advisories came from LGBT organizations like the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association and the Human Rights Campaign. I read enough to comprehend that the worst mass shooting in American history had happened at Pulse, an LGBT club in Orlando, leaving 50 people dead, and 53 injured. I put my phone away again, as the announcer said the performance was dedicated to the victims of the Orlando shooting.

During the intermission, I learned that the shooter — 29-year-old, U.S.-born Omar Mateen — had reportedly pledged allegiance to the leader of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, during a 911 call from the nightclub. Mateen’s father, Mir Seddique — who is reported to have ties to the Taliban — issued a statement that religious ideology had nothing to do with the massacre, and that his son committed this act of terror because he got “very angry” after seeing two men kissing in downtown Miami two months ago.

Sateen had been on the FBI’s radar since 2013, when he made “inflammatory comments” to co-workers suggesting he had terrorist ties. Despite reports that Mateen pledged allegiance to Daesh, and Daesh claiming responsibility for the attack, there’s no evidence of a direct link to Daesh. Daesh regularly claims credit for terrorist acts by killers who merely send out some message of allegiance. Still, it’s difficult to believe religion had nothing to do with it. What else causes someone to get “very angry” at the sight of a kiss? Why else do we still live in a culture more comfortable with men killing each other than men kissing each other?

Since the patrons of the Stonewall Inn fought back against police harassment and violence early on the morning of June 28, 1969, June has been the month that the LGBT community celebrates Pride. Our communities are at their most visible, as Pride is at least in part about survival as an act of defiance, and walking in the light of day without fear. Last year, Pride was a celebration, coming on the heels of the Supreme Court ruling in favor of marriage equality. This year Pride takes on special significance, as our communities stand up against “religious freedom” laws that seek to codify discrimination against LGBT Americans on the basis of “sincerely held religious beliefs.”

This isn’t the first time our community has been targeted by terrorist violence.

● In 1996, anti-gay and anti-government right-wing extremist Eric Rudolph bombed the Otherside Lounge, a gay bar, injuring five people during the Atlanta Olympics. During the five years Rudolph spent hiding in rural North Carolina, despite millions of dollars and the efforts of FBI investigators to get locals to cooperate with their search, the same locals wrote country songs about him and sold T-shirts emblazoned with, “Run, Rudolph, Run!”
● On September 22, 2000, Ronald Gay walked into the Backstreet Cafe in Roanoke, Virginia, armed with a 9 mm and a desire to “waste some faggots.” Gay’s relatives said he’d been taunted because of his name since elementary school. By the time Gay — who spent the day of the shooting reading the Bible and called himself a “Christian soldier” — was finished shooting, one person was dead and six injured.
● On New Years Eve in 2013, Musab Masmari set fire to a Seattle gay nightclub, Masmari later confided to a friend that he “‘burned a gay club’ and that he did it ‘because what these people are doing is wrong.’” Another friend reported that Masmari had a “general hostility toward homosexuality.”
● Last fall Dallas saw a series of unsolved attacks against gay men exiting gay bars and venues. One man was dragged into a van, and beaten with a baseball bat while being called a “fag.”
● And in Los Angeles on Sunday, James Wesley Howell, of Indiana, was arrested with a cache of weapons and explosive-making chemicals. Howell apparently planned to attend the L.A. Pride festival in West Hollywood with his cache of weapons and explosives.

All that’s changed is that this time a different brand of homegrown fundamentalist was responsible.

Orlando is not only the worst mass shooting in America’s history; it is the worst act of terror visited upon the LGBT community. Yet, Florida governor Rick Scott and other Republican lawmakers can’t even bring themselves to acknowledge that the LGBT community was targeted. Perhaps that’s because so many Republicans have stood with and have ties to Christian fundamentalists who share the Orlando shooter’s belief that LGBT people are worthy of death. Meanwhile, the usual suspects blamed the LGBT community and Muslim immigrants for the Orlando attack.

Now, in the midst of pitched battles over whether some Americans can discriminate against LGBT Americans based on religion, we’ve been viscerally reminded that terror and violence make no distinctions between us. Unlike us, these twin horrors do not discriminate. Born of the same hatred that causes one person to believe we should be denied goods and services because of who we are and another to believe we should be denied life for the same reason, they simply annihilate.

As the second act began, I wondered what we would tell our children about this latest attack, which they would inevitably learn of. Upon hearing that the LGBT community was targeted, would they worry about my safety and my husband’s? Would they worry about their own safety? Can we assure them that their world is a safe place.

Is anywhere in our world safe?

Try to name a place where Americans gather in the course of our daily lives that hasn’t been visited by terror or gun violence. Are we safe in our homes? No. Are we safe on our roads and highways? No. Are we safe on our commuter trains and subways? No. We’re certainly not safe in our workplaces, nor are our children safe in their schools. We aren’t safe in our shopping malls, movie theaters or houses of worship.

A couple of months from now, before the summer ends, we will have forgotten about Orlando. We will probably have gone through and forgotten about a few more shootings since then. We will no more heed the voice of Christine Leinonen, whose son Christopher is confirmed among the dead in the aftermath of the shooting, than we did the grieving parents of the elementary school students killed at Sandy Hook.

Mateen walked into Pulse carrying an AR–15 style rifle — the “gun of choice” for America’s mass shooters, of which there are some 9 million in circulation as of 2014 — which he bought legally, despite previous flags by the FBI. It’s the same gun that brought us the carnage in San Bernardino, Sandy Hook, and Aurora. Once illegal under the federal assault weapons ban, they are built to kill quickly and efficiently; capable of firing hundreds of rounds of ammunition per minute, with high accuracy. They rose in popularity when the ban expired in 2004. Of the eight high-profile mass shootings since July of last year, assault rifles were used in seven.

Thirty-nine of the victims died inside of Pulse. Nightclubs like Pulse have long been important lifelines for LGBT communities; safe spaces “where people came together to be with friends, to dance and to sing, and to live,” as President Obama described. In the darkest days of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, they were the places where we came together to support one another, and even raise money for one another’s hospital bills, as Pulse frequently did. Those places have long been the target of anti-gay violence. The Orlando shooting revealed to Americans the dangers the LGBT community still faces.

The dangers the LGBT community faces are really the dangers all Americans still face. How many fewer people would have died if Mateen had walked into Pulse armed with less firepower, or only with knives? We may never be able to entirely eradicate hate, but we can take away people’s ability to act on it so quickly and on such an appalling scale. But we don’t have the political will, not even after this latest massacre.

Cirque du Soleil’s “Toruk” is based on James Cameron’s movie, “Avatar.” At the end of “Toruk,” five disparate tribes of the same race — the blue-skinned Na’vi — come together to save their species from destruction. As we made out way home, I thought of Orlando, and wondered if the human race yet has the capacity to do the same.

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