Sadly, Partisanship Reigns Even in the Face of Disaster


The Orlando massacre was certainly news, but not altogether new. It was the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history — 50 dead, including the killer. Yet it was not even the deadliest jihadist massacre of the last several months. There were 130 dead in Paris last November and 70 dead in Pakistan on Easter Sunday.

The Orlando terror attack garnered global attention because it was an escalation of terrorism in the American homeland, because it targeted a gay nightclub, and, it must be admitted, because of the propensity of the hyper-political culture of the United States to impose partisanship even on bodies heaped, bloody and bullet-ridden, on the dance floor.

The massacre was a great evil visited upon open societies, upon the United States and upon the LGBT community, which invited the particular solidarity shown across the nation. Communities that have not had close relations — Muslim and homosexual Americans — offered comfort to the grieving together. Many who felt themselves at the margins, suspicious of the attention of others, found themselves bathed in the media spotlight, receiving the goodwill of strangers.

Yet despite the moments of silence, the prayer vigils and the resolutions to heal, the response to the massacre was a depressing illustration of an American public square in which even a cataract of corpses doesn’t get in the way of prosecuting one’s political agenda.

There has been, for some years now, an expression — “God, guns and gays” — that speaks of the capacity of those issues to viscerally move voters. It was first spoken of as a bundle of issues that prompted socially conservative voters to get more intensely engaged. In more recent years, the same issues are thought to have shifted to the advantage of more socially liberal positions. Regardless, “God, guns and gays” are political fireworks, and the Orlando tragedy brought all three together in combustible fashion.

And so it began. Donald Trump, self-congratulatory as always, doubled down on temporarily banning immigration by Muslims. He was accused — more than plausibly — of seeking to profit politically from the terror attack. It sometimes happens that way, of course — the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing was a turning point in the political fortunes of President Bill Clinton on the road to re-election, after having suffered heavy losses in the 1994 midterm election.

President Barack Obama, piqued at criticism of his anti-terrorism policy, spoke about banning certain types of rifles. Everyone seemed to have an opinion about what it meant for the gay community, as if a murderous jihadist was representative of, or influenced by, mainstream U.S. politics.

Extremist Islamic jihadis have slaughtered people who work in skyscrapers, who commute on underground trains, who study at universities, who pray in mosques, who worship in churches, who visit tourist resorts overseas, who drink coffee in cafés, who publish blasphemous cartoons, who shop in kosher supermarkets, who go about the 101 activities of ordinary daily life. So that a gay nightclub might be a target is not a shock in itself. Yet in an environment where gay marriage, transgender bathrooms, lawsuits over freedom of conscience and the conflation of religious liberty and bigotry dominate the political and cultural wars, how could the Orlando massacre remain only a massacre?

Incredibly — but utterly predictably — an act of Islamist terror was blamed, by an official of the American Civil Liberties Union, on the “Christian right,” among the more extreme voices on a spectrum that, since 9/11, has sought to tar orthodox Christian teaching with the brush of Islamist violence.

The condolence statements of the Catholic bishops were run through a political grinder. What did they include? What did they leave out?

Most bishops stayed away from both the Islamic and gay-related dimensions of Orlando and retreated to the safer ground of emphasizing the bishops’ long-standing policy priorities in favor of gun control and increased immigration.

Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston warned against “efforts to divide us based on our differences”; Archbishop Blase Cupich of Chicago opted to speak of mental illness and gun control, while pledging solidarity with “our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters”; and Bishop Robert Lynch of St. Petersburg, Fla. — customarily the best echo among the bishops of the prevailing elite culture — opted to blame religion, including Catholicism, for planting the seeds of hatred that lead to violence.

It is all so predictable now. Uniquely in the world, America is practiced at responding to mass shootings. All players are at the ready to resume their regular roles.

Had Orlando been a terrorist bombing or hijacking, perhaps America would not have reverted so quickly to post-mass-shooting media mode. It will be the same the next time.

The travelogue of terror has been circling the globe since 9/11, but has returned to the United States with particular vengeance now. The solidarity and unity from 2001 are gone. In the intervening years, polarized politics have come to dominate every possible issue. Not even a massacre can kill that.

Father Raymond J. de Souza 

is editor in chief of 

Convivium magazine.