There are no words to adequately express the horror over what befell our brothers and sisters at Pulse Orlando in the first hours of June 12. Blood still soaks the places where the wounded and dying lay; the smell of gunpowder lingers in the air. Law enforcement is piecing together answers from terrorized survivors and witnesses, blood splatter and bullet holes. This largest mass shooting in U.S. history perpetrated at a popular gay club in the heart of our sister city to the southwest is as yet a disjointed series of images, facts, thoughts and feelings imprinting on all of us in rapid sequence.
Forty-nine lives taken by one man, his life later taken by police.
Hundreds of narrow misses.
Thousands upon millions of mourners, candlelit vigils, flowers, donations, symbols of solidarity, sorrow, outrage and resolve. Hours’ long lines to donate blood to save survivors, hashtags, anguish, statements by police, politicians, advocates, rainbow flags at half mast, mothers’ tears.
As a society, we are at our best in moments like these, when the sublime grace of humankind brings us together against unspeakable evil. In the face of such tragedy, we forget the petty differences that pull us apart, and stand shoulder to shoulder, united against evil.
The aftermath of these moments often finds us at our worst. Trying to get back to normal as we pick up the pieces, we’ll sign away fundamental freedoms, identify new groups to hate, new enemies to fight, new reasons to be divided, spawning senseless squabbles that bring the ugly, awful and horrible among us swimming to the surface with no purpose but prolonging suffering and capitalizing on pain to serve twisted ends.
We do this because we want answers. In the aftermath of unspeakable acts, we want to know why.
There are some who will blame the lack of reasonable gun control. Surely we can agree that a person twice investigated by the FBI for links to terrorism should not be able to stroll into a gun store and emerge armed with death for dozens. Perhaps we can also agree that assault weapons favored by mass shooters from Columbine to New Town to Orlando have no place on our shelves or in our homes.
There are others who will blame radical Islam. Surely we can agree that those who slaughter innocents in the name of religion are not faithful to any dogma, Muslim, Christian or otherwise.
Some will blame intolerance and hatred of the LGBTQ community. Surely we can agree that you do not have to understand what moves a human heart to accept, tolerate or even love the individual.
Now that we all agree, where do we go from here? Will we support legislation that keeps firearms out of the hands of the mentally ill, abusive and legitimately suspicious to law enforcement, that keeps all firearms that have no real purpose but mass killing off the market?
Will we refuse to blame the world’s 1.6 billion – or the 3.3 million American – Muslims, according to Pew Research, for the atrocious acts of one deranged criminal?
Will we stop denying the LGBTQ community equality, both locally, by amending the HRO in Jacksonville so that our LGBT neighbors can live and work without fear of legalized discrimination by bigots, and nationally, by abandoning the fight against equality using a hate-based series of lawsuits about cakes and other such nonsense misidentified as expressions of religious freedom?
Or will we post condolences on social media, bow our heads in shared silence, wear a ribbon to work then get up the next morning and forget truths glimpsed in the company of hundreds of candlelit strangers in a park?
We live in a distracting, fast-paced world where there are too many bodies to count, too many victims, survivors, causes and cures to care about every single one. So we move on and let ‘them’ deal with their problems. We get up in the morning, brush our teeth and return to our routine. We forget the killing; we forget the tears. We tell ourselves it’s not our fight.
But it is our problem and it is our fight. This fractious society is being poisoned by an ‘us v. them’ mentality because we get up in the morning, toss our unity ribbon in a drawer and get on with business as usual. We forget how we felt in those moments when shared suffering scrubbed our resistance away and allowed us to accept our fellow man regardless of religion, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression. We don’t have to spend all our time volunteering or give every dollar we make to worthy causes. We just have to give a shit about the principles that make us better; resist hate, instead embracing the tolerance, reason and even love that unite us as a nation of many voices singing the same song, the song of freedom that redeems rather than divides. These principles are more than words, they are the heartbeat of America.
It is time we take our pulse.