Di­vided we mourn

Cecil Whig - - FRONT PAGE - Michael Ger­son

— One of the man­i­fold tragedies of the Or­lando mass mur­der is how dif­fi­cult it is for us to ex­pe­ri­ence it and mourn it to­gether.

This killing lies at the in­ter­sec­tion of so many deep emo­tions and per­sonal eq­ui­ties: The war against ter­ror­ism. Re­sent­ment against Is­lam. Gay rights and pride. Gun con­trol. Many Amer­i­cans im­me­di­ately claimed that the shoot­ing jus­ti­fies their pre-ex­ist­ing be­liefs, not just about the threats to Amer­ica, but about the na­ture of evil. It is to­tal­i­tar­ian ide­ol­ogy. Or some­one else’s reli­gion. Or reli­gion it­self. Or ho­mo­pho­bia. Or gun lovers and their po­lit­i­cal de­fend­ers.

How can we pos­si­bly learn any­thing un­der these cir­cum­stances? But learn­ing is needed. A friend refers to this type of at­tack as the price of liv­ing in a free so­ci­ety, com­par­ing it to the sit­u­a­tion in London dur­ing the years of IRA terror bomb­ings. And there is truth to this. Amer­ica — free and vast — is a mas­sive soft tar­get. But con­ced­ing that fu­ture at­tacks are likely is very dif­fer­ent from view­ing them as nor­mal. In Or­lando, we saw the hor­ri­fy­ing fail­ure of a valid ex­pec­ta­tion of se­cu­rity.

We should fight this. But ev­ery­one, it seems, has cho­sen dif­fer­ent bat­tle­fields. It is as if, fol­low­ing Pearl Har­bor, some had urged a cam­paign against Ja­pan, oth­ers against Canada, still oth­ers against Paraguay. How can any so­ci­ety as po­lar­ized and politi­cized as our own di­ag­nose and op­pose a com­mon threat?

This was once the role of po­lit­i­cal rhetoric — to find shared lessons and com­mon pur­pose fol­low­ing the shat­ter­ing of the peace. But it is dif­fi­cult, at least in this case, to imag­ine the unity of Dec. 8, 1941, or even Sept. 12, 2001. Pres­i­dent Obama’s speech fol­low­ing the Or­lando at­tack as­serted a unity “in grief, in out­rage and in re­solve” but also touched on gun con­trol themes that im­me­di­ately an­gered many in the red­der por­tion of his au­di­ence. The pre­sump­tive Repub­li­can nom­i­nee felt obliged to pro­vide his own ver­sion of pub­lic grief. It was ut­terly typ­i­cal for Don­ald Trump to seek shame­less po­lit­i­cal ad­van­tage dur­ing a tragedy, and to take shame­ful credit for past an­tiMus­lim sen­ti­ments. But this in­volves more than Trump’s class­less­ness. A sig­nif­i­cant por­tion of Amer­i­cans now ex­pects the equiv­a­lent of a re­but­tal at a fu­neral.

“In some ways,” Rus­sell Moore of the Ethics and Reli­gious Liberty Com­mis­sion told me, “tragedies now have less the feel of the JFK as­sas­si­na­tion and more of the feel of the Ge­orge Wal­lace at­tempted as­sas­si­na­tion in 1972. Nixon’s first re­sponse is to plant McGovern lit­er­a­ture in Arthur Bre­mer’s apart­ment. We are all Nixon now, seek­ing to plant ide­olo­gies in the place of hor­ror, for our po­lit­i­cal ben­e­fit.”

At a time when we need to lis­ten to and learn from oth­ers, our strong ten­dency is to em­ploy events to reaf­firm our con­vic­tions. I sus­pect I am as sus­cep­ti­ble to it as oth­ers are. How do we re­main open to lis­ten­ing, re­ally lis­ten­ing, to peo­ple who have a dif­fer­ent an­gle of vi­sion? Isn’t it pos­si­ble for a sin­gle event to prove var­i­ous points about law en­force­ment, na­tional se­cu­rity and the ter­ri­ble har­vest of ha­tred against our LGBT neigh­bors and fam­ily mem­bers?

Our po­lit­i­cal lead­er­ship has lost the abil­ity to fo­cus on shared tasks and ex­press the moral stakes. The pres­i­dent, it seems, is just one more voice in a cho­rus where ev­ery­one is singing a dif­fer­ent piece of mu­sic. What Franklin Roo­sevelt called “the warm courage of na­tional unity” seems re­mote.

Maybe si­lence is the best trib­ute — or the only one we can man­age to of­fer to­gether. But I hope we do not give up on lan­guage so eas­ily. The Or­lando slaugh­ter caught — in a hor­ri­ble lightning flash of vi­o­lence — the hu­man re­al­ity of death and loss. The an­swer, the al­ter­na­tive, is sim­ple and dif­fi­cult: Em­pa­thy, even across the widest dif­fer­ences. “When you vi­su­al­ized a man or woman care­fully,” con­cludes the Whiskey Priest in Gra­ham Greene’s “The Power and the Glory,” “you could al­ways be­gin to feel pity — that was a qual­ity God’s im­age car­ried with it. When you saw the lines at the cor­ners of the eyes, the shape of the mouth, how the hair grew, it was im­pos­si­ble to hate. Hate was just a fail­ure of imag­i­na­tion.”

We are called to imag­ine both the last, ter­ri­ble mo­ments of un­justly short­ened lives, and the pain — sud­den, un­earned, un­end­ing — of those they left be­hind. And to hope, not only in this life but be­yond it, against all the ev­i­dence of our grief, that love wins.

Michael Ger­son is a syn­di­cated colum­nist. Con­tact him at michael­ger­son@wash­post.com.


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