How Americans Came Together After the Orlando Massacre

Deep divisions over gun control and the best response to Islamist terrorism are only part of the story–and unimportant compared to what unites the country.

Carlo Allegri / Reuters

The most deadly mass shooting in U.S. history began in the early hours Sunday morning when a lone gunman opened fire at a nightclub in Orlando, Florida. Throughout the day, millions of Americans followed the story through their social media feeds, where many angrily rehashed debates about gun control, radical Islamist terrorism, homophobia, President Obama’s public response to the mass killing, and Donald Trump’s proclivity for making everything about Donald Trump.

For many good people, the gut reaction to atrocity is precisely to politicize it. They are shocked, angry, and afraid. And in their goodness, they harbor a desperate if impotent desire to prevent the wanton slaughter of innocents from ever happening again. They therefore seize on and forcefully press whatever change in belief or culture or policy would, in their estimation, bring about a safer world. This leads to conflict among them and tends to vex many other people who respond to mass killings by retreating into something like a period of mourning. The mourners feel at a gut level that tragedy impels us to step back from the day-to-day; to postpone festivities; to suspend politics; and to process our grief. People are just different. And some of us have previously reacted in both of these ways.

Watching the conflicting responses on Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, and comments sections of the mass media, where they overwhelmed calls for unity, it is easy to despair of all the argument; to fret about what divides us; to lament that a bigot who pledged allegiance to ISIS and murdered dozens caused us to anger at one another.

But media and social media distort how people see themselves and one another. Look back at Sunday through a different lens––what people did in the analog world rather than what they said online––clarifies that the country responded with its best, not its worst.

As Omar Mateen began his attack, he exchanged fire with an Orlando police officer who risked his life in an unsuccessful attempt to stop the gunman. Later, as  Mateen rushed deeper into the club and the attack turned into a hostage standoff, a SWAT team and other police officers numbering at least a dozen put themselves in great peril storming the building, killing the gunman, and saving numerous lives.

Nearby, dozens of doctors and nurses set aside their horror at the carnage flowing into their emergency rooms and labored to save as many of the wounded as possible.

As local reporters and editors scrambled to get news of the wounded to the public, the people of Orlando took the initiative to give of themselves in the manner most urgently needed. “Lines stretched around the block as people waited, in some cases for hours, to donate blood in support of those wounded in a deadly attack,” NPR reported. “As Sunday evening approached, many of the city's blood banks reported that they were at capacity, thanks to the enormous outpouring of support—but called for donors to return on Monday and Tuesday, as the need would continue.”

Crime scene investigators and other unsung municipal employees in Orlando took on the grisly burden of processing as gruesome a crime scene as can be imagined. Nameless officials and medical personnel steeled themselves to tell fathers and mothers that their sons and daughters were among the dead.

American Muslims quickly took up a task that should not be their burden, but that plays a salutary role––they denounced their Mateen and any claim he laid on Islam:

Muhammad Musri, the president and imam of the Islamic Society of Central Florida, called the attack “monstrous.” He appealed to Muslims to donate blood for the wounded and to cooperate with Florida police and the F.B.I. At a hastily organized press conference in Washington, D.C., Nihad Awad, of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the largest Muslim civil-rights and advocacy organization in the United States, scolded ISIS. “You do not speak for us,” he said. “You do not represent us. You are an aberration. You are outlaws.” He went on, “They don’t speak for our faith. They claim to, but 1.7 billion people are united in rejecting their extremism and their acts of senseless violence.”

Gay-rights organizations scrambled to provide emotional and therapeutic support to shaken members. Equality Florida set up a GoFundMe page for shooting victims and their families. In the first 17 hours, 32,680  people donated almost $1.3 million.

A shaken but brave gay community turned out in large numbers for gay-pride parades in major cities throughout the United States, refusing to let fear of terrorism stop them from peaceably assembling and pursuing happiness. Local authorities in all those jurisdictions went on high alert to protect their right to be there and queer.

Organizers in Central Florida pulled together vigils for the Orlando victims by nightfall. “Despite warnings from Orlando Police, who were concerned about the security of large gatherings, several hundred people communed on the shoreline of Lake Eola,” The Sentinel reported. “They lit candles and left sunflowers near the Chinese pagoda and one musician played an original song to honor the victims.”

They were hardly alone.

Communities throughout the United States held vigils big and small. Clear across the country, in Southern California, one was held at an LGBT center, another at a mosque, a third at a major intersection, and a fourth at Long Beach’s Harvey Milk Park.

“Not since 9/11 has a moment like this brought the nation together, and that evaporated quickly,” Karen Tumulty wrote in The Washington Post.  “Since then, calamity seems only to drive the left and the right further apart, while faith in the nation’s institutions deteriorates further. Across the ideological and partisan divide, it no longer seems possible to even explore—much less agree upon—causes and solutions. So the response has been muddled, even while the next tragedy looms.”

I mostly disagree.

There are deep divisions in America about how best to respond to gun violence, Islamist terrorism, attacks by people who are violent or mentally ill, and many matters besides, but it could hardly be otherwise in a diverse nation of more than 300 million people with vastly different life experiences, values, and empirical judgments. We live together, trying to address hugely complicated problems. Of course we often muddle through. While frustrating, there remains an overwhelming consensus that policy disagreements should be solved through the political process. And most Americans understand, at least on reflection, that our country is much more than politics and policy.

On Sunday, Americans on the allegedly divided right and left were both represented among the police officers who risked their lives to kill a rampaging gunman; the emergency room professionals who labored through horrific carnage to save lives; the local journalists who got timely information to their community; the community members who lined up for hours in Orlando to give blood; the gay people who bravely turned out at Pride rallies nationwide; the police officers who stood ready to protect them; the Muslim American leaders who denounced Islamist terrorism; the tens of thousands who began raising money for the victims; and the countless people in  homes like mine and yours who heard the news and wept or trembled or prayed or gathered loved ones close because life is fragile and precious.

The unavoidable political fights that will always persist in a diverse, pluralistic democracy would be a bit less angry, bitter, and alienating if the remarkable depth of what unites us and its heartening manifestations were better remembered. It is fair easier to focus on outrages than on how much Americans share.