The Guardian Weekly
17 June 2016
The first reaction to the dreadful crime in Florida – the worst mass shooting in US history – must be one of sympathy and solidarity for the victims and those who loved them, and for the city of Orlando. It is dreadful that people who had come out for an evening of joyful dancing, and of celebration of their freedom to love whom they will, should have their lives ended or shattered in gunfire. This is true, and overwhelmingly important, whatever the motives of the gunman turn out to be. Whether it is an act of organised terrorism remains to be discovered. We do not know whether the victims were murdered for being American, or gay, or for both reasons: Isis, after all, has a record of monstrous crimes and cruelties against gay people.
But while the police and the FBI go about their work of unpicking the background to the atrocity, responsible politicians need to show calm and resolution. The damage done to the victims and their families is dreadful enough. It is one of the tasks of leadership to minimise the damage that the attacks can do to wider society. This is a task in which – predictably – Donald Trump is failing. “When will we get tough, smart, and vigilent?” he tweeted to his followers: but there is no evidence that anyone in Orlando was anything less than tough, smart, or vigilant as the attack unfolded.
The awful truth is that American society is vulnerable to these attacks in a way that others are not because of its belief that freedom requires easy, widespread access to lethal weapons. While it is true that guns don’t kill people, as the slogan has it, people with guns do kill people, and they do so much more quickly and effectively than people without guns can manage.
The problem here is that the US, a country that valorises freedom above almost everything else, is damaging its real freedoms in pursuit of illusory ones. The freedom that was enjoyed – in both senses of the word – by the dancers at the Pulse nightclub is upheld by tolerance as well as by firm and unbiased enforcement of the laws. It is a general freedom for every kind of American: LGBT as well as straight, Muslim, atheist and Christian. This is what serves as a real beacon to the rest of the world. But this kind of freedom is also what the attack, and the possible reaction to it, must tend to damage.
Whateve the motives of the attacker turn out to be, no gay person in the US can feel as secure today as they did last Saturday – a rejection compouded by the existing refusal of the authorities to accept blood donations from sexually active gay men. This is an additional tragedy on top of the deaths. The country must not compound it by lurching from fear into fantasies of omnipotence, in which everything gets better if only the strong man lashes out at his enemies. That would damage exactly the freedoms it purports to defend.