Thoughts on the Orlando massacre

This is a little late in coming (13 days after the event, which already seems to be slipping out of the public consciousness), and also my first try at writing up anything resembling an original opinion in blog post format, so I apologize for both those things.

I first heard about the Orlando massacre by word of mouth–I was attending a cousin’s wedding and cut off from news. After catching a couple of fragmentary details here and there, Mary and I decided to willfully ignore the news until the weekend was over. Once the celebratory mood had subsided, I sat and absorbed the awful news. The brutality of the massacre, and the predictable denouement that has followed so many of these events recently in the USA, was not unique, but for some reason felt rawer and more painful than ever.

The rush to dub the assailant a terrorist reminded me of a similar, though much less charged, debate that followed an event that took place when I was a freshman at UNC. To retell the story: One day, a friend and I were walking through a big lunchtime crowd in the “Pit,” a brick courtyard centrally located on campus where there is heavy pedestrian traffic during the day. After passing through the crowd and heading out toward the street, we heard screams from the crowd. At first, I mistook them for cheers that usually heralded the arrival of a UNC basketball player for a photo op. As it turned out, however, someone was driving an SUV through the crowd, flooring the accelerator and trying to hit as many people as he could. Most people leapt out of the way, but some unlucky ones were struck and bodies flew off the hood and into the air. I was 20 or 30 yards away and separated from the main crowd, but I caught a glimpse of the driver’s impassive face just before the car ran over the foot of an older professor who had not been able to escape in time, causing him to crumple to the ground in pain. The driver whipped the SUV around a corner on two wheels and drove off. During those decisive few seconds, I was transfixed with indecision–by the time I realized I should run, the danger was already over. I imagine I would react similarly in a more perilous situation, unfortunately.

Fortunately, no one was killed that day. Later, it turned out that the driver had been an Iranian-American man. Naturally, many people were quick to brand him a terrorist because of his professed anti-American views, despite him not belonging to any type of organization and likely suffering from mental illness. We were extremely lucky to have avoided anything worse–as we later learned, he had flirted with the idea of shooting into the crowd rather than trying to run people over. Imagining the same scene but substituting a semiautomatic rifle for the car makes the “guns don’t kill people” slogan ring hollow.

Learning about the horrible events in Orlando and remembering the incident in Chapel Hill makes me feel sad and worried about the future of humanity (in both senses of the word). I personally feel sometimes that pessimism and cynicism are holding me back from working harder to contribute meaningfully to society, and working to help create the world I want to live in. The events in Orlando, in some sense, have affirmed my pessimistic attitude: the kneejerk xenophobia, the stranglehold that capital and its lobbyists have on discourse (here specifically thinking of gun manufacturers), and of course the marginalization of LGBT people are all on display. “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity,” a line we first read in 10th-grade English class, comes to my mind. I hope that after the initial shock and sadness fade, this horrible tragedy will spur me (and others) not to indulge pessimism and negative attitudes but to make positive changes in society.

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