The Worst Mass Shooting in U.S. History

The focus on ideological terrorism in the Orlando nightclub massacre obscures the anti-LGBT hatred we’ve let fester within our own borders.
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Participants show their support for victims of the Orlando shooting during the 2016 Gay Pride Parade in Los Angeles, California.

Participants show their support for victims of the Orlando shooting during the 2016 Gay Pride Parade in Los Angeles, California.

With Pride parades around the country planned for today, millions of LGBT Americans are expected to spend their weekend in celebration of their identities. But that celebration has been clouded in mourning.

Early Sunday morning, a heavily armed gunman opened fire inside Orlando’s famous Pulse nightclub, killing 50 people in the deadliest mass shooting in United States history. Authorities quickly identified the shooter as 29-year-old Omar Saddiqi Mateen, according to the Associated Press. The New York-born son of Afghan immigrants, Mateen had pledged his allegiance to ISIS and expressed anti-gay sentiments to friends and family. Mateen was also not an unknown threat; he had popped up on the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s radar before and was interviewed several times in the last few years regarding (inconclusive) connections to other ISIS-linked American extremists.

Armed with an assault rifle and handgun, Mateen exchanged gunfire with police before taking hostages. “This is an incident, as I see it, that we certainly classify as domestic terror incident,” Orange County Sheriff Jerry Deming told the AP. President Barack Obama agreed, acknowledging the tragedy as “an act of terror and an act of hate.”

“The place where they were attacked is more than a nightclub, it is a place of solidarity and empowerment,” Obama said, “where people have come together to raise awareness, to speak their minds and to advocate for their civil rights. 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 fundamental values of dignity.”

Obama’s statement underscores a sad, sorry truth: Despite the gains of the LGBT rights movement, America is still not a safe space for its gay and lesbian citizens. And while conservative politicians send thoughts and prayers and, like Florida senator and former presidential candidate Marco Rubio did, denounce this latest attack as a function of Islamic terrorists’ “sick and warped ideology,” this is hatred that’s been born at home.

Despite the gains of the LGBT rights movement, America is still not a safe space for its gay and lesbian citizens.

The Orlando attack follows what should have been a banner year for LGBT Americans. The American public had grown more comfortable with LGBT relationships than ever before, hate crimes were on the decline for almost every minority group (except for Muslims), and the triumph of marriage equality at the Supreme Court seemed to present a resounding rebuke to decades of hatred and homophobia.

But many of those same politicians who directed their thoughts and prayers to the victims of the Orlando massacre have never seen LGBT Americans as citizens worthy of the same dignity and respect as the rest of the country. A Timesurvey of 2016 presidential contenders found that no Republican hopeful save (sort of) John Kasich supported marriage equality. Dozens of Republican lawmakers have voted to protect federal contractors’ ability to discriminate against LGBT citizens.

And this isn’t just at the federal level. States like North Carolina have adopted restricted bathroom use laws for transgender Americans, essentially humiliating a subset of their taxpayers; other states are considering following suit. Mississippi passed a bill in April allowing businesses to refuse service to same-sex couples. Only 17 states (and Washington, D.C.) have affirmative bans of discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. By contrast, some 30 states have anti-LGBT laws (including “religious freedom” protections) on the books, despite the fact that “religious freedom” is a losing argument against LGBT rights even among Christians.

While outright hate crimes against LGBT Americans may be on the decline, they have certainly not disappeared, and almost nine million citizens face daily abuse and discrimination. All of which is to say: There is a very deep-seated bigotry embedded in America’s identity.

The mass shooting in Orlando on Pride Weekend has introduced a sad coda to this simmering undercurrent of constant violence that threatens LGBT Americans daily. There’s no evidence yet that Mateen was directly ordered by ISIS to carry out this attack; it appears that he was instead “ISIS-inspired,” part of the terror state’s broader global strategy, and chose the target himself because he “got angry when he saw two men kissing in Miami,” his father told the AP.

Though Mateen seemingly acted alone, a similar tragedy nearly struck Southern California: Santa Monica authorities arrested a man with high-powered rifles and explosives who planned to attack a Los Angeles Pride celebration in West Hollywood, the Los Angeles Timesreports.

In the wake of the Orlando tragedy, many gay and lesbian Americans, desperate to help a community wounded by senseless hatred and violence, have been prohibited from donating blood under federal regulations, despite the Food and Drug Administration’s relaxation of the lifetime ban last year. (The ban exists in the first place because of a 1983 panic over the spread of HIV and AIDS; the ban has continued, despite the fact that new instances of HIV/AIDS have been declining for years.)

There’s another important component in the Orlando shooting, and that’s the ease with which Mateen had access to weapons. According to Orlando law enforcement officials, Mateen had managed to legally purchase the AR-15 (the modern mass shooter’s weapon of choice) he used at Pulse in the last week or so despite the fact that he’d been investigated by the FBI twice for connections to terrorism.

Not that it would’ve mattered anyway: According to Newsweek, more than 2,000 “known or suspected terrorists” purchased firearms between 2004 and 2014, and legislation in the aftermath of the 2015 San Bernardino massacre that would have prevented terrorists from purchasing firearms was voted down by Senate Republicans.

It doesn’t help that Orlando does not require a permit to purchase shotguns and rifles. Whether Mateen was more directed by the Islamic State or his own homophobia, there were few barriers to his acquiring the tools to carry out the mass shooting.

There’s a propensity in American culture to declare an “end of history” in the face of a monumental social shift. Just as some will claim that the first black president means racism must be dead, many say that gay marriage victory at the Supreme Court means equality has finally arrived. But that’s a distorted dream we need to wake up from. America’s long had a depressing double standard on religious violence, a propensity to rage against Islamic terrorism but an inability to see the the roots of hatred in our own exceptional society. By offering those empty and hypocritical thoughts and prayers to the victims in Orlando, conservative politicians aren’t just erasing LGBT Americans from their own tragedy by embracing the scary specter of Islamic terrorism, as Slate noted — they’re erasing their own complicity in and eerie similarity to the hatred they seek to condemn.

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