In the hours after the deadliest mass shooting in American history, which killed fifty people and wounded fifty-three others at a gay night club in Orlando, Americans began the ritual of separating our strands of shame after a mass killing. In this case, we are apportioning an armed man’s actions to the influence of ISIS, homophobia, mental instability, and the availability of high-powered weapons.
It is our ugly accounting—and it is absolutely necessary. Better that than pretending, as we did just a few years ago, that a mass killing was not “the time” for politics, that our horror should impose a holiday on analysis, that we must, in a perversion of civility, pretend that nothing in our laws or culture might have saved those lives. Politics, even when they are flawed and toxic, show us to ourselves—rarely more so than on Sunday, when the presumptive Republican nominee for President, Donald Trump, paused for a moment of self-celebration: “Appreciate the congrats for being right on radical Islamic terrorism,” he tweeted. “I don’t want congrats, I want toughness & vigilance. We must be smart!”
By that hour, anybody watching television knew that Trump was wrong; the Orlando massacre could not simply be ascribed to the influence of radical jihadists, even if the shooter did, as reported, place a 911 call just before the attack to pledge allegiance to ISIS. On the contrary, as President Obama said that afternoon, “We know enough to say that this was an act of terror and an act of hate.” It was the fifteenth time that Obama has spoken after a mass shooting. Over the years, he spoke, in tears, after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, in Connecticut, in 2012 (twenty-seven dead); in fury, after a rampage at Umpqua Community College, in Oregon, in 2015 (nine dead). In Oregon, he pointed to gun policies that reduced shootings in the United Kingdom and Australia, and asked, “How can you, with a straight face, make the argument that more guns will make us safer?”