I didn’t really cry until the press conference.
There was something about the way the surgeons of Orlando Health described the bombardment of bodies — at once so professional, using precise technical terminology, and at once so human, their eyes betraying the overwhelming horror they had witnessed, that finally brought home the immensity of this massacre, and how much of my own life is bound up in it. And how wholeheartedly sad and angry I am.
A tale of two locations: a discotheque and an emergency room. The walls of one are black and pop with colorful lights and posters. The walls of the other are white and smeared with blood. Reggaeton music thumps throughout the disco, while the hospital hums with machinery and beeps to the pulse of the patients. One is a place of joy and release, a place to shed the masks of oppression we pull tightly over our faces. The other is a place of pain.
And a third place, I suppose: inside the mind of a killer so tormented by his own humanity that he cannot allow others to enjoy theirs.
And then a fourth place: our televisions, where politicians use this event to make hay, twisting it like the limbs of the victims to suit their own worldview, to score a few points with constituents, to feather their nests and fund re-election campaigns even as the floors are sticky with blood.
“Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor,” says Leviticus (19:16), that same Leviticus used by politicians and pastors and hate-mongers to denigrate us, forgetting the verse that follows: “You shall not hate your kinsfolk in your heart” (19:17). Those God-fearing politicians and pastors and hate-mongers who rightfully are horrified by the carnage, but blind to the connection between it and the homophobia, misogyny and dislike for difference that they themselves inculcate. Their self-righteousness stinks like burning hair.
Most modern translators understand “do not stand idly by” to mean “do not profit by the blood of your neighbor.” And yet here they are, doing just that. All the perfumes of Arabia won’t sweeten their hands.
At the Orlando Health press conference, the doctors disclosed that they weren’t surprised by the first few gunshot victims. They were ready. As a trauma center in an American city, treating gunshot victims is a regular occurrence. That fact is as horrific as a massacre – more so, because there are more homicides, suicides and injuries by gunfire daily across America than even a single, horrific massacre. [The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 33,636 deaths by firearms in 2013, for an average of 91 each day. That doesn’t include injuries, only deaths.] And it’s horrific that we’ve come to accept such a sorry state as immutable. Other western nations do not live this way. The most logical, minuscule, gun laws seem lofty. We don’t demand that our elected officials protect our lives. In Arizona, we accept that some of our representatives in Congress accept massive amounts of money from the NRA. So there’s blood on our hands, too.
What’s more, the massacre at Pulse has been a wake-up call to heterosexual America who did not fully understand, I think, just how vulnerable gays, lesbians, transgender and other queer people feel in our society. What others claim is “special treatment” is, in fact, equal rights. The right not to be fired. The right to rent any apartment you can afford. The right to use the bathroom without harassment. The right not to be shouted at as you walk down the street. The right to look where you want to look without fear of reprisal. The right to donate blood. Every gay, lesbian and transgender person knows these and other vulnerabilities, and knows that these rights are not yet secured. They are especially precious to women, people of color, the differently abled, transgender people and poor folk. Now, perhaps, the rest of America will understand that it is truly not always safe for us here.
Are you OK with that?
While only one man pulled the trigger in Orlando, the culture of aggressive masculinity, homophobia, misogyny and degradation is widespread. Does it exist in your place of business? What about your school or synagogue? Is it OK to make gay jokes in your home, or to pick on someone for being “too” effeminate or masculine? Do women flourish where you work and pray? Is there a social cost to being a bully or bigot? Do your authority figures use their authority for the good of all, and can they demonstrate it? What role can you play in making our communal life safer for all?
No one but Omar Mateen pulled the trigger in Orlando. But our culture of aggressive masculinity, homophobia, misogyny and degradation causes pain daily, in countless ways, against people of all genders and sexual orientations. There are a thousand ways, big and small, for us private citizens to push back against it and protect each other.
We human beings keep asking the same question, as if the answer were ever in doubt: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:9-10).
Tragically, the same answer keeps coming: “Your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground.”
Rabbi Dean Shapiro is the spiritual leader of Temple Emanuel of Tempe.