Orlando, gun violence, and American identity

Since 9/11, nearly half a million Americans have died as a result of gun violence inside the United States. That’s more than the number of Americans killed during World War II, the most deadly war in history.

Suppose that during the same period, from 2001-2016, this number of deaths could be attributed to terrorism. Were that the case, democratic governance in the U.S. would have been suspended. We would now be living under martial law.

The fact that gun violence is not generally regarded as an issue vastly more perilous than terrorism, has nothing to do with an objective assessment of each threat. It is simply because the ability for Americans to kill themselves and each other with legally obtained weapons is widely accepted as a feature of American culture. It’s an American thing. It’s the homicidal/suicidal shadow of freedom.

Many of those Americans who are desperate to defend the right of each citizen to arm themselves, now want to characterize the mass shooting in Orlando as not being an American thing and the easiest way of doing that is to undermine the American identity of the gunman.

In news reports, journalists with what I assume are good intentions, are referring to Omar Mateen as “American-born” and a “U.S. citizen.” Both are accurate labels and yet they obscure the fact that Mateen was just as much an American as Donald Trump.

Who gets referred to simply as an American and who does not, illustrates the fact that in common discourse here, it’s generally assumed that there are three categories of name.

Someone who is white and has a vaguely English-sounding name — like Donald Trump, Sarah Palin, Tom Hanks, or Bernie Sanders — gets called an American and no distinctions of heritage need be specified.

Then there are those Americans with Spanish names — like Gonzalo Curiel, Alberto Gonzales, Eva Longoria, or Sonia Sotomayor — who tend to fall in the nebulous might-be-American category.

And then there are Americans with “foreign” names like Omar Mateen.

Anyone with a name that signals Muslim or Middle Eastern, is commonly regarded as foreign until proved otherwise. And even if it turns out the individual was born in America and has never lived in any other country, they are still likely to be viewed in some unstated sense as somehow not quite fully American. These are the Americans who get asked where they come from after having already explained that the come from Florida, Texas, California, or wherever in America they happened to be born.

As much as this country professes to uphold a system of non-discrimination, the core category of membership has yet to shed racial and ancestral connotations. It’s ironic that a country that came into existence by breaking away from English rule and which took a Spanish name, should still retain such strong cultural ties to England.

Nevertheless, to understand what Mateen did, it’s necessary to acknowledge that he was no less American than Donald Trump or any other American who might currently be using the Orlando shootings to fuel Islamophobia and xenophobia.

Mateen’s dream was to become a law enforcement officer. He pictured himself as a cop in the NYPD.

In post 9/11 America, how much more American can someone aspire to become than to serve as a police officer in New York City?

Even so, while recognizing that American identity is not linguistically or ethnically determined, we also have to divest it of its mythological accretions: the notions that Americans are blessed in some way.

Americans aren’t special. They have no unique virtues and a multitude of commonplace failings.

What we are learning from those who knew Mateen was that, his dreams of the NYPD notwithstanding, he was a disaster in the making.

Former co-worker, Daniel Gilroy, a former police officer who worked with Mateen as a private security guard, found Mateen’s habitual and out-of-control rage so threatening, he ended up quitting his job. Gilroy now says: “I saw this coming.”

“I feel responsibility — there was no shock. I feel responsible. I felt like, because I was a coward, 50 people are dead. That’s the way I feel.”

American-born Donald Trump, with no foundation to make such an assertion, also claims prescience about the shootings.

Of course he’s not referring to a ban on the purchase of assault rifles — he’s alluding to his promised ban on Muslims.

He has yet to amplify what it would mean to “ban” American Muslims. Is he calling for all Muslims to be rounded up and put inside concentration camps?

The only predictable effect of Trump’s statements on this issue is that they will fuel hatred.

Hatred is contagious and can be found among the religious and non-religious in every nation.

As much as many people might pray for the creation of a more loving, less violent country, we will inevitably continue living in an America that harbors countless hateful individuals.

And yet as much as hate can harm others, hate alone cannot result in a massacre.

Without access to instruments of deadly violence, Omar Mateen’s hatred could certainly be hurtful but it was very unlikely to result in anyone’s death.

How many more mass shootings are to come is simply a question of how willing America remains as a facilitator of mass violence. Most likely, it takes a president to say resolutely, enough is enough — and follow through in action — but such a president has yet to take office.

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