The Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County extends its heartfelt condolences and expresses its solidarity with the victims of the Orlando, Florida massacre and their families. We extend our solidarity as well to the LGBT community that appears to have been the selected target of the atrocity.
Once again, we are witness to mass slaughter by firearms, the most extensive in American history, with 49 persons dead and 53 injured. In a speech following the massacre, President Barack Obama said that “We have to decide if that’s the kind of country we want to be,” referencing the facility with which a potential murderer can access weapons with huge killing power. His rhetorical question has broader implications.
Let’s start with guns. The United States has the dubious distinction is the only country in the world which experiences of these kinds of mass killings. And their frequency is increasing to the point of becoming a normative feature of American life, as the president’s remark implies. Yet, the American people remain hostage to the gun manufacturers and their lobby, which in turns maintains a stranglehold on legislators who are too cowardly to defy in the slightest their puppet masters. The leadership of the National Rifle Association is comprised of unbending fanatics who value their putative freedom to own a gun more than they do the lives of innocent men, women and children.
Several facts remain clear. There is no place for assault rifles in civilian society. They are not needed for hunting, target practice, nor self-protection, which is the common refrain of Second Amendment defenders. Their sole purpose is to kill large numbers of human beings in rapid succession.
The Second Amendment is invoked in the service of “freedom.” Yet what is the nature of this freedom for which 27 Americans a day lose their lives as victims of homicide? On closer scrutiny, it is the freedom to flaunt a macho swagger. It is the freedom to purchase a false security from one’s neighbor and his putative predatory designs. And it is a freedom to harbor libertarian, seditious, fantasies to defend oneself against a tyrannical government that is more worthy of contempt than trust. In the face of the carnage it brings, it is not a freedom worth having.
The tenor of American society has become very shrill and an illness courses through its veins at levels deeper than its idolatrous worship of personal weapons. We have become a nation divided against itself. Having lost a commitment to the common good, our politics has become petty, nasty and small. Broad aspirations of economic justice have been replaced by narrower, divisive preoccupations; the social issues that consume the culture wars. These have created unbridgeable lines of difference between people. Mutual understanding and dialogue fall away and are replaced by anger and judgement. The humanity of the other is reduced to a mere political ideology to be ridiculed, scorned, and demeaned. Openly expressed racism and xenophobia, which had become unfashionable in recent decades, have re-emerged with virulence and self-justification.
This stridency has turned malignant, dark and very ugly. It has fostered contempt and the demonization of “the other” – of minorities, gays, women, immigrants, Muslims, Latinos. American society has become fertile ground for the spawning of hatred. And hatred readily slides into violence. This malignancy now finds expression in the highest echelons of political leadership, which feeds on it and reciprocally legitimizes and gives license to it. For the first time in our history we have a presidential candidate who is a demagogue, a know-nothing with fascist tendencies. It is very dangerous.
It is against this background of social breakdown, legitimized hate, ready access to guns and generalized violence that a young man undertook this unspeakable crime. It seems that his murderous designs were fueled at the intersection of hatred for gays and the ethos and doctrines of jihadism. Different factions will spin this calamity for their political interest, which, in the light of the death of so many and the grief of their loved ones, is lamentable but inevitable.
We cannot be naïve with regard to the terrorist connection. There is the external matter of foreign policy and internal question of why young American men and are attracted to this ideology. There may also be a question of mental illness and characteristics specific to each violent actor. But none of these elements are sufficient alone to explain the causes of the massacre in Orlando. And realism should inform us that no matter what responses we put into place no cluster of remedies can be failsafe. Life always confronts us as precarious.
While we cannot obliterate all mass killings, we can ensure that there will be fewer of them. Among the things to which we must commit ourselves are:
1. Instituting a total ban on assault weapons.
2. Instituting thorough background checks as a matter of federal policy as a requirement for gun ownership. If Congress fails to act on these initiatives, we must replace the current members of Congress with representatives who will.
3. Continuing to safeguard against those with terrorist designs within Constitutional restraints. While recognizing that there are those committed to harm us and we have a right to insist that our government keep us safe, the fight against terrorism needs to always consider the degree to which American use of force generates backlashes that kill innocent civilians and thereby render us less safe. The employment of force, when necessary, must always be used with the utmost discretion.
4. Committing ourselves to working for an American society founded on the principles of respect for the dignity and welfare of all; a society that sustains a vital democracy, values pluralism and difference, fosters mutual understanding, exemplifies social and economic justice, and recognizes the humanity of all – minorities, women, the disabled, the immigrant, and the poor. We must keep before us a vision of society that shuns violence and cherishes mutual appreciation, compassion and love.
Given the challenges of our time, Ethical Culture has a vital role to play. Among our members and in society-at-large we need through teaching and social action promote our humanistic values, which are also American values at their best. We need to work to reduce the stridency and divisions in American life. We need to sustain the belief that American society can and must overcome the rawness and hatred which have so corrupted our social character. And as hatred is quelled, so violence in all its forms will be diminished also.
Dr. Joseph Chuman
June 16, 2016