Fabiola Santiago

After Orlando shooting, let's talk about guns, not ethnic identity

Sen. Bill Nelson addresses reporters during a news conference after the shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Sunday, June 12.
Sen. Bill Nelson addresses reporters during a news conference after the shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Sunday, June 12. AP

It didn’t take long for the deadliest mass shooting in our history to be used by politicians to divide us.

With the body count still untallied, loved ones desperately trying to account for the missing, and law enforcement investigating leads, Florida politicians took to the microphones Sunday morning at the macabre scene in Orlando.

No surprise that Republican Gov. Rick Scott had only prayers and mention of his love for his children and grandchildren, so deflecting the issue of military-style firepower being legally placed in the hands of a violent young man in gun-happy Florida.

“Societal” issues, he said, would be dealt with later.

Too early to talk about a troubled U.S.-born American on a terror watch list for his expressed ISIS sympathies who could purchase at a local gun shop a Sig Sauer MCX, an assault rifle developed for U.S. special operation forces.

Too early to mention that the United States makes up 5 percent of the world’s population, yet is responsible for 31 percent of the world’s mass shootings. The tally so far this year of shootings where four or more people were killed or injured, according to the Gun Violence Archive: 136 mass shootings in 164 days.

Too early to remember that Republican senators blocked the most modest of upgrades to background checks in 2013 as the parents of 20 dead children walked the halls of Congress begging lawmakers to address gun safety. And again in the days after the San Bernardino massacre last year, they rejected a bill aimed at stopping terrorists from legally purchasing guns.

Whom to blame?

But it wasn’t too early to bring up the issue of hyphenated Americans as part of the problem in the aftermath of a madman’s targeting of a gay dance club on Latin night, when about half of the 49 dead would turn out to be Puerto Rican and Cuban.

No, it wasn’t too early for Sen. Bill Nelson to associate — with a terrorist, no less — all of us who celebrate the roots of our identity.

Nelson told reporters that the congressional intelligence committee believed the shooter may have ISIS connections. Then, he went on to decry the violence.

“In two successive nights we’ve had killings [in Orlando], the singer performing live at the Plaza shot down two nights ago and then his horrific act. So what is happening to our country?” he said in remarks broadcast nationwide. “We are going to have to dig down deep and ask ourselves who we are as a people. We’ve got to think of ourselves as the common denominator of Americans, not as hyphenated Americans off on some cause. That’s what we’ve got to explore deep inside at this point.”

Listening to Nelson — Democrat, admired astronaut — made this Cuban-American feel suddenly uprooted, stateless, disenfranchised.

When a senator tells me that the problem is that I can’t be who I am, then the very essence of what it means to be an American is on the chopping block. We’re forgetting the basic democratic principles that built this nation of immigrants. We’re trading freedom of expression for whatever assuages our fears. We’re practicing automatic rejection, and, worst of all, we’re ordering what people should feel.

The outrage that day was deservedly pointed at GOP presumptive nominee Donald Trump, who took a victory lap on the victims of Orlando on Twitter, upping his bigotry to new narcissistic heights by accepting congratulations on being right about Muslims.

But wholesale blaming is contagious — and it isn’t just for bigots anymore. Nelson didn’t do any better blaming hyphenated Americans for violence, not only for the mass shooting but referencing in the same careless breath the murder of a singer by a white, non-hyphenated, U.S.-born Floridian.

What is happening to our country?

Yes, let’s talk about it.

Honoring heritage

It’s ludicrous to equate the radicalization of a killer with a history of failure and violent behavior with the cultural act of identifying with one’s roots and heritage. It goes without saying that even the U.S. Census makes a point of identifying the population racially and ethnically, that our U.S. passports note that we were born elsewhere.

We — Americans who aren’t deniers of our beginnings but who treasure the link, Americans who honor our parents and our cultural heritage — are bridges between people, languages and cultures. But we’re eroding, little by little, the gains of the age of inclusion.

What is happening to our country?

Political cowardice and blame-placing before fact-gathering, and, dare I even say, maybe the beginning of the end of an open and tolerant society. It’s too comforting to readily think of threats as foreign, to blame the otherness of people for the unthinkable. But the facts don’t hold up to that theory. Most mass shootings in the United States have been the work of native-born, white Americans. Under renewed terrorist threats, ready-access to war weaponry will only grow the list of loss and devastation.

We’re engaging in this fruitless and shameful task of questioning people’s alliances because we’ve failed where it counts: Congress let a ban on assault weapons expire in 2005 — and now it’s the expression of choice of angry young men from all walks of American life.

We’ve turned the most sacred and carefree of settings — a college campus, a theater, a church, an elementary school, a dance floor — into battlegrounds because political polarization has put in the wrong hands military-style assault rifles and ammunition to take out, not a home intruder, but our way of life.

As for hyphenated Americans, how can we ever consider ourselves whole when some never tire of reminding us that we’re not Americans in full?

That, senator, is what’s happening in our country.