WASHINGTON – One of the manifold tragedies of the Orlando mass murder is how difficult it is for us to experience it and mourn it together.
These killings lie at the intersection of so many deep emotions and personal equities: the war against terrorism; resentment against Islam; gay rights and pride; gun control. Many Americans immediately claimed that the shooting justified their pre-existing beliefs, not just about the threats to America, but about the nature of evil. It is totalitarian ideology. Or someone else’s religion. Or religion itself. Or homophobia. Or gun lovers and their political defenders.
How can we possibly learn anything under these circumstances? But learning is needed. A friend refers to this type of attack as the price of living in a free society, comparing it to the situation in London during the years of IRA terror bombings. And there is truth to this. America, free and vast, is a massive soft target. But conceding that future attacks are likely is very different from viewing them as normal. In Orlando, we saw the horrifying failure of a valid expectation of security.
We should fight this. But everyone, it seems, has chosen different battlefields. It is as if, following Pearl Harbor, some had urged a campaign against Japan, others against Canada, still others against Paraguay. How can any society as polarized and politicized as our own diagnose and oppose a common threat?
This was once the role of political rhetoric – to find shared lessons and common purpose following the shattering of the peace. But it is difficult, at least in this case, to imagine the unity of Dec. 8, 1941, or even Sept. 12, 2001. President Obama’s speech following the Orlando attack asserted a unity “in grief, in outrage and in resolve” but also touched on gun control themes that immediately angered many in the redder portion of his audience. The presumptive Republican nominee felt obliged to provide his own version of public grief. It was utterly typical for Donald Trump to seek shameless political advantage during a tragedy, and to take shameful credit for past anti-Muslim sentiments. But this involves more than Trump’s classlessness. A significant portion of Americans now expects the equivalent of a rebuttal at a funeral.
“In some ways,” Russell Moore of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission told me, “tragedies now have less the feel of the JFK assassination and more of the feel of the George Wallace attempted assassination in 1972. Nixon’s first instinct was a scheme (never carried out) to plant McGovern literature in Arthur Bremer’s apartment. We are all Nixon now, seeking to plant ideologies in the place of horror, for our political benefit.”
At a time when we need to listen to and learn from others, our strong tendency is to employ events to reaffirm our convictions. I suspect I am as susceptible to it as others are. How do we remain open to listening, really listening, to people who have a different angle of vision? Isn’t it possible for a single event to prove various points about law enforcement, national security and the terrible harvest of hatred against our LGBT neighbors and family members?
Our political leadership has lost the ability to focus on shared tasks and express the moral stakes. The president, it seems, is just one more voice in a chorus where everyone is singing a different piece of music. What Franklin Roosevelt called “the warm courage of national unity” seems remote.
Maybe silence is the best tribute – or the only one we can manage to offer together. But I hope we do not give up on language so easily. The Orlando slaughter caught – in a horrible lightning flash of violence – the human reality of death and loss. The answer, the alternative, is simple and difficult: Empathy, even across the widest differences. “When you visualized a man or woman carefully,” concludes the Whiskey Priest in Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory, “you could always begin to feel pity – that was a quality God’s image carried with it. When you saw the lines at the corners of the eyes, the shape of the mouth, how the hair grew, it was impossible to hate. Hate was just a failure of imagination.”
We are called to imagine both the last, terrible moments of unjustly shortened lives, and the pain – sudden, unearned, unending – of those they left behind. And to hope, not only in this life but beyond it, against all the evidence of our grief, that love wins.
Michael Gerson’s column is distributed by The Washington Post Writers Group.