Last week, as I picked up my oldest grandchild to take her to summer day camp, my son prepared to drive to a Florida Bar Convention. He kissed his eight-year-old daughter and said he would see her the next day.
As she and I walked to my car, she looked slightly confused. Apparently, she had not heard about the plan for the family to spend the weekend with her father after his convention.
I explained that he was driving to Orlando and the next day she would ride with her mother and the two younger children to enjoy two additional nights in a resort hotel there. My beautiful and innocent granddaughter looked up at me and cried, “What if he gets killed in a nightclub?”
With tremendous sadness, I tried to reassure her.
The next afternoon, on the drive home from her camp, I listened to radio news. She suddenly told me she was afraid to go to Orlando.
Our sadness and our fears can in no way compare to the overwhelming loss of the families and friends of the victims in Orlando. My heart aches for them. And, I recognize that the ripples of this and so many other mass shootings affect all of us…including our children.
Orlando is a very special place.
Over the years, my husband and I have driven I-4 to Orlando many times. We visited friends who lived there. We went to the Magic Kingdom a month or so after it opened and continued to make occasional visits to the different theme parks.
We have attended many conferences there. Orlando was the site of most of the classes and activities for my doctoral program.
With the arrival of grandchildren, we became Disney annual pass holders. With those, we visit the “Happiest Place on Earth” and have stayed at local hotels four times since January 1.
I had not really thought about the importance of that place to me until this week, but I realize how many happy hours I have spent in and around that city.
Now, however, when I hear Orlando used as a single word to describe THE LARGEST MASS SHOOTING IN U.S. HISTORY, I get a strange sick feeling, my throat tightens and tears come to my eyes. I have heard Columbine, Aurora, Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech and others used in a similar way, but I never realized how the use of a place name to describe such horrific carnage gives the place a whole new identity, one the people who love that place do not want to hear.
Today, when I hear Orlando I think of the terror those (mostly) young people must have experienced and the incredible grief their family members and friends are now enduring and desperately hoping to relieve. As the mother of a young adult, I think of the parents who lost the most precious people in their lives. They loved their children at least as much as I do my own son. Their grief and loss are inconsolable.
RESPONSES TO THIS TRAGEDY
We have seen many responses to this horrific event: blame, jumping to conclusions, suggesting that we get rid of “foreigners”, trying to restrict guns, embracing members of the LGBTQ community, refusing to lower the flags in remembrance, and many more.
Events of this magnitude serve to intensify pre-existing opinions. Fear of immigrants? Keep them out. Fear of gun violence? Restrict gun purchases. Homophobia? There weren’t enough of them killed.
We feel helpless and afraid. The remedy for most people is to take some kind of action—to feel that those lives were not lost in vain. The question is: What can we realistically do?
Today, it seems that religion had little to do with this horrific act. According to reports, the murderer’s ex-wife indicated that “he was not particularly devout and gave no indication of an affinity with religious extremism.”
Far more likely at this time is the possibility that the shooter, whose name I refuse to learn or to write, was mentally unstable, experienced homophobia or self-loathing, and gravitated toward a perverted view of religion that reinforced his pathological thoughts.
In spite of the more likely causes of this event, I have heard little about efforts to identify, curb and/or treat this type of pathology. There are no easy answers and I certainly don’t have them, but I know we do not understand how to stop these notions and we are not doing enough.
MY OWN RESPONSE
So, I am drawn to simpler but still complicated solutions.
Whatever the cause of this horrible tragedy, I have little doubt that the availability of weapons of this type made it at least 102 times more horrible.
The availability of weapons did not cause this, but it made it much worse than it could have been. With that in mind, my reaction was to renew my focus on trying to keep weapons, particularly assault weapons, out of the hands of terrorists and people who are prone to violence.
I called Florida Senator Marco Rubio’s office with an impassioned but probably fruitless request for him to be the hero and sponsor legislation to restrict weapon sales. I tried to call House Speaker Paul Ryan’s office to ask that he allow a vote on background checks and keeping weapons out of the hands of people on the No-fly List. But, his voice mailbox was full. I watched the last few minutes of Senator Chris Murphy’s very moving 15-hour filibuster and posted it on my own Facebook page.
I responded to a post from my right-wing cousin who assured his Facebook friends that if a gunman attacked in a store, they were safe if he had a gun hidden under his shirt. My comment to him was: “unless you happen to be mentally deranged or unskilled.” He assured me that although he could be deranged, he is definitely skilled.
But, with all the time I spent thinking about the problems surrounding this tragedy, I did not feel there was a lot I could do.
SHIFT IN CULTURE
Any solutions to our problems require a shift in our culture—to focus on mental health concerns, to deal with gun violence, to encourage thoughtful political and social discourse, to overcome the fear of a religion with approximately 1.6 billion adherents worldwide, to overcome bigotry against individuals in LBGTQ communities. Unfortunately, a cultural shift takes time.
I have considered two great cultural shifts in my lifetime.
When I was a young adult, people were often very proud of how much they could drink, and they laughed about driving while intoxicated. Recently, I watched an old Dean Martin/Foster Brooks comedy sketch and realized that our culture would never laugh at the topics in that sketch now the way we did back then.
I see so many things in that clip that we would not condone today (smoking, drunkenness and a possible joking reference to gays), but a large part of the population considered it very funny then.
Those views about drinking in particular remain in some settings, but in the general population, we find designated drivers and efforts to keep drunk drivers off the road. I credit the efforts of Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (MADD) for that enormous shift.
In addition, early in my life, cigarettes were everywhere—in airplanes, offices, theaters, stores, restaurants and my own home. Smoking was considered the height of “cool.” Today, you see people standing outside buildings in designated smoking areas. Somewhere, we reached a tipping point.
I cannot look to a single group like MADD that brought about this shift in how we view tobacco products today, but according to Mary E. Plouffe, four factors changed the way Americans look at smoking: Facts, Money, Rights and Images. She argues that changes in our focus on these topics changed our views of smoking and eventually changed our practices.
So, how do we change a culture of hatred and violence that gives our country the highest homicide rate of any in the developed world? Even though some would argue it is a mistake to compare only countries in the developed world, I believe it is important to recognize that distinction.
According to CNN, the U.S. leads the world in the number and frequency of mass shootings (three or more people killed in a single incident.) The CNN article further states: “From 1966 to 2012, nearly a third of the world's mass shootings took place in the U.S.” My own state of Florida is one of three states with 11-15 mass shootings this year, the highest level.
Other countries have mental illness, homophobia and religious intolerance, but they do not have our level of gun violence.
So I ask: Can we as a society agree to make a difference so that others do not have to suffer?
HOW CAN WE SHIFT?
To bring a shift in our culture that will end or reduce the number of tragedies such as this and to heighten the quality of civic discourse requires careful thought and concentrated action.
As we see with the variety of responses and the initial votes in Congress barring restrictions on guns, the path to a different future is complicated. It is not just about guns and violence; it is about bringing positive change to our lives.
This change requires a large portion of our population to commit to new attitudes and practices. Individuals who demonstrate a commitment to those attitudes and practices will:
- Carefully avoid jumping to conclusions.
- Study issues and important documents that inform enlightened decisions. (The Constitution, written works of the Founding Fathers, relevant Supreme Court Decisions, current events, etc.)
- Rely on verifiable facts rather than purely emotional responses.
- Refuse to pass on information to friends and followers without checking the facts.
- Accept that there are no villains except those who try to divide us for personal gain and those who would try to harm us.
- Break out of self-imposed silos and echo chambers that promote only certain ideologies.
- Hold elected officials and candidates accountable for ethical behavior and factual representations.
- Consider the big picture. How do decisions affect the entire country and not just ourselves?
- Spend less time thinking about and discussing celebrities and sports stars and more time considering people who make a difference.
- Work to embrace or at least understand people with whom we disagree.
- Recognize that there are no easy answers.
- Look for compromise and solutions rather than winning arguments.
- See humanity rather than labels.
It is easy to look at this list and say, “Yes, THEY (the other political party, another social class, another religion) need to do that.” However, people from all persuasions have to adopt these attitudes and behaviors to reach the desired tipping point.
As I review this list, I recognize that I also have to change. I reluctantly admit that I do not spend enough time looking at a variety of viewpoints. I spend too much time in echo chambers.
I admit that I have angrily turned off my car radio or clicked to another TV channel when I hear Donald Trump’s voice. I disagree with everything he stands for because I believe he stands for nothing except himself. However, many people see in him the answers to their personal concerns.
I have to recognize and honor their concerns and try to look for solutions. I must try to manage the anger I feel when I hear him speak and try to understand his appeal. (That won’t be easy.)
Anger has become our default emotion. To use the words of a song from a popular children’s movie, I/ we must “Let it Go.”
And most important…I must embrace the people I love and make each day the best it can be for them and for myself. I may not be able to change THE world, but I can change MY world.
I hope you will join me.