The atrocity that transpired at The Pulse nightclub in Orlando this weekend once again brings the deep divisions we face into focus. One of my friends on social media spoke of the arguments in his Facebook feed as “people coming down on one side or the other”. I responded that I wished it was that simple. What we are looking at is not two sided, but rather a multidimensional polygon with a seemingly endless number of interlocking planes that rival an M.C. Escher drawing in complexity, and like an Escher it is often impossible to figure out what side you are on in any given argument.
Some of the debates are extremely meaningful and necessary. Obviously the debate over firearms, particularly military-style assault weapons is part of this. Was this purely an act of terrorism, was it an act of anti-gay violence, some combination of the two, and how does this relate to ISIS and radical religious ideology? These are all worthwhile points for discussion as long as they lead us to respond with a meaningful solution.
The media, ever looking for sensational headlines quickly labeled this “the worst mass shooting in US history.” Almost immediately my Facebook feed was inundated with posts declaring this to be untrue holding that, among a few other comparisons, the 1890 massacre of as many as 300 members of the Lakota nation by the U.S. Calvary at Wounded Knee, SD should hold that distinction creating yet another opposing set of surfaces on this already confounding polyhedron, and unnecessarily so. The two events share as much in common as oil and water.
There are some similarities. Oil and water are both viscous liquids at normal atmospheric temperatures and pressures. Both have freezing points and boiling points, and so on. There is no need to analyze this analogy too deeply. The massacre at Wounded Knee and the shooting at Pulse are both examples of the unjust taking of large numbers of human lives. Both examples of mass slaughter were carried out by firearms, and both involved the loss of innocent civilians. In both cases the casualties were largely members of a marginalized group. Neither can be justified in terms of our current social sensibilities nor certainly what most of us consider to be the boundaries of basic human decency.
The effort to conjoin these two events however is disingenuous and an example of false analogy. The massacre at Wounded Knee was carried out by soldiers acting under the authority of the United States government. Today many of us believe that this action and the government policies that led to it were a form of racist genocide. A mass killing? Yes. A horrendous atrocity? Absolutely. But to attempt to put it in the same category as what happened in Orlando, Blacksburg, San Bernardino, Newtown, Aurora, Columbine, or any of the other relatively contemporary examples of a lone shooter or two conspirators carrying out mass murders with assault weapons only serves to add unnecessary confusion to an already confounding conversation.
There is nothing we can do to change the history of what this country did to the aboriginal peoples who inhabited this continent for eons prior to the arrival of European settlers. We can and should come to terms with this portion of our history and fight efforts to continue the denial of the evil carried out in the name of this country. We can and should end the continuing oppression of Native American people that lives on as a legacy of this evil.
On the other hand, we can and we must do something to stop the bloodshed carried out with frightening regularity in our own time by individuals acting alone or at the behest of others. We can and must find a way to dampen the cacophony of name-calling, political posturing, and meaningless arguments that stand in the way of preventing more mass killings.
Whether you regard this most recent outrage as “the worst mass killing in U.S. history” or not, the argument is pointless unless we resolve as one people to make sure that it is the last.
If we continue down the same path we have been following the distinction of being “the worst” is almost certain to be eclipsed in the not-too-distant future, and the responsibility for that shall fall on our shoulders.
Let’s fix this thing people. We have the power. We only need the will.