It was an evening of candles, prayers, rainbow flags, the refrains of John Lennon’s Imagine sung by the Miami Gay Men’s Chorus. The vigil at Soundscape Park was about shared grief, love, unity in the aftermath of a massacre, the needs of a stricken community.
After a long, awful day, there was a welcomed solace in that simple ceremony on Miami Beach. And there was relief, just as welcomed, to be away from the hypnotic lure of TV and our digital devices, roiling with the vitriol that consumes modern media after traumatic events. As if in the headlong race to assign blame for a demented act, there’s no time to remember the 49 dead and more than 50 wounded.
By early Sunday morning, before police knew the extent of the Orlando killings, before any of us had heard the name Omar Mateen, social media and other digital domains were consumed by angry pronouncements around the who and the why. On news stories, the reader comments, hardly a font of enlightenment on a good day, hit the bottom early.
It’s as if mass murder has become a kind of horrible Rorschach test, to be interpreted, instantly, according to whatever grievance dominates someone’s worldview. This crime, with so many disparate elements, offered something for everybody.
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It was a murderous attack on a gay nightclub by a killer who, at least at the time of the shooting, professed allegiance to the Islamic State; a killer who had previously expressed abhorrence at the sight of two men kissing. Here was a murderous homophobe. Here was a murderous Islamic extremist. Here was a killer who struck at the confluence of Ramadan and gay-pride month.
Or maybe Mateen had finally erupted with the racist hatred that former coworkers said had consumed him, attacking The Pulse nightclub on Latin dance night.
For those of us who see danger in the easy access to firearms afforded the mentally ill, Mateen offered the deadliest evidence yet that gun laws are sorely lacking. Here was a gunman whose ex-wife Sitora Yusufiy described him as “mentally unstable and mentally ill.” She told CNN: “I saw his instability. I saw that he was bipolar and he would get mad out of nowhere.” A high school classmate told crime author and Newsday reporter (and former Miami Herald staffer) Kevin Deutsch that his former friend was depressed, delusional, paranoid. Aahil Khan told Deutsch that Mateen “couldn’t control his emotions.”
And then there were the reports in several newspapers, including the Orlando Sentinel, that Mateen had frequented Pulse in the months before the shooting and that he had messaged gay acquaintances of the club using Jack’d, a gay dating app, adding yet another layer of speculation, that he had been motivated out of some kind of mad self-loathing. The Palm Beach Post reported that a male police academy classmate claimed that in 2006, Mateen accompanied a group that frequented gay nightclubs. The classmate said that Mateen had asked him out with romantic intentions. “We went to a few gay bars with him, and I was not out at the time, so I declined his offer.” Yusufiy, the ex-wife, told the New York Times, “In Islam, it’s true that there is very low tolerance for homosexuality. He may not have been able to be himself.”
Others noted that here was someone who was both a wife-beater and who had been investigated for possible terrorism links, yet he had no problem buying deadly weapons.
Some, including Donald Trump, saw this as a validation of his call to ban Muslim immigration, though Mateen was a New York-born citizen.
There were those — myself among them — who hoped this might be the mass murder that finally convinces Congress to defy the NRA and limit the sale of assault weapons.
New York’s tabloids captured the warring sentiments Monday. The New York Post cover shouted, “Islamic Terrorist Kills 50; ISIS vs. U.S.” The giant type on the cover of the New York Daily News blared, “Thanks NRA.”
At Sunday evening’s vigil in Miami Beach, state Rep. David Richardson, the first openly gay member of the Florida legislature, wanted to postpone these quarrels, at least for a night, while the dead were mourned. “We’ll save those debates for tomorrow,” he said.