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Beyond the Bullets

I apologize for not blogging for the last few weeks. Perhaps I just ran out of things to write about for a while. Perhaps it just took a major tragedy to get my attention. Well, Orlando got very one’s attention. One shooter. About fifty dead. A hundred questions about the shooter. Calls from the left to ban guns and calls from the right to ban Muslims.

Of course this time the particular venue makes things even more complicated. A gay bar. A hangout for people who, despite progress made over the last few decades, are still viewed disdainfully by many Americans. Not only that, but this particular bar was popular among Hispanics, a group sufficiently unpopular that a presidential candidate has gained a lot of support by threatening to wall off a major source of Hispanic immigrants. Put it all together and what you have is a horrendous crime against people who face horrendous discrimination in this country. A Muslim shooter killed a lot of American undesirables. Some people must be having a hard time deciding whether to side with the shooter or the shot.

There are always a few people who do not hesitate to express their true feelings in such a situation. One conservative minister has stated that we should not feel bad about the massacre and that it was too bad that more of those sodomites were not killed. But that is an off-the-wall, over-the-top reaction that can only alienate most people. It is a horrible sentiment and it is horrible that some people will agree with it, but it certainly does not represent the attitude of most Americans. I am more concerned about the attitudes of more typical, mainstream citizens who are not going to shoot up gay bars or condone those who do.

In the last few days, I have spoken about the Orlando tragedy with two such people. I know them both well and have a high opinion of them. They are decent people who are good husbands and fathers and solid citizens. That is precisely why I am concerned about comments they made about the shootings.

One of them lives somewhere in Florida and I asked him whether he was anywhere near Orlando. He said no, and added that he would not have been in that location anyway. To make sure I understood, I asked if he meant that exact location, and he said yes. He was pointing out that he would not go to a gay bar. Why did he say that? I had no reason to think he would go there, so why make a point of it? Did he mean that the incident did not mean much to him because the victims were gay? Or that he could not relate to the incident because they were not like him? Or even that he does not care a lot about what happens to such people?

In my conversation with the other person, we had both been talking about the shootings, then mentioned another recent event in Orlando, the death of a young child attacked by an alligator on Disney World property. He said that was a real tragedy, emphasizing the word “that” as though to distinguish it from what happened in the bar. It was, of course, but was it more of a tragedy than the death of forty-nine people at the hands of a crazed gunman? Do gay lives matter less than other lives? Am I reading too much into a few random words? Possibly, but I do not think they were random. I think these comments by two thoroughly decent people who try to treat everyone respectfully reveal a fundamental and often unconscious bias in our society. These two people are straight white men. They may be completely unaware of how much privilege they are accorded without even asking for it. The man who pulled the trigger and the minister who seemed to condone the shooting are, fortunately, exceptions in a country where most people would do neither. What happened to the people in that bar is tragic. But so is the underlying bias and discrimination that hurts millions of people all the time, even driving a shocking number of them to suicide. We can and should debate how to reduce the number of mass shootings in our country. But we should also work to overcome the less shocking but far more frequent injustices committed because of prejudices so deeply rooted that they can go unnoticed even by those responsible for them.

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