June 15, 2016

Orlando: More Than One Thing Can Be True at the Same Time

Orlando Panorama.jpg
CC BY-SA 3.0, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12266998
It is possible for two things to be true at the same time, and it is possible for at least some people to entertain two or more ideas as being potentially true at the same time. With regard to the recent mass murder in Orlando and our efforts to reduce the number of similar crimes in the future, consider the following possibilities:
  1. It is possible that Islam had at least something to do with motivating this particular individual to commit this particular crime.
  2. It is possible that better enforcing existing gun laws and/or the passage of new gun laws might prevent at least a few similar tragedies in the future.
  3. It is possible that the "lone wolf" mass murder scenario is so hard to predict that there is little we could do that would have a meaningful impact in reducing this type of crime.
  4. It is possible that the majority of people in the U.S., whether through learned helplessness, apathy, or some other psychological process, will not demand meaningful action from our elected officials no matter how many or what type of tragedies occur until we are personally and directly affected by one.
I think there is a decent chance that there is something to all four of these possibilities. It sounds like Islam might have had at least something to do with the motives of the alleged gunman in this case. If the reports about the incident turn out to be accurate, he told us as much. Although I have little reason to think that gun control could ever eliminate crimes like this, it seems difficult to argue that making it more difficult for some people to obtain certain types of weapons might help to prevent at least a few future tragedies. And yet, there are many good reasons to suspect that these "lone wolf" scenarios are always going to pose serious problems for law enforcement. Finally, I think it is fair to say that many people in the U.S. have simply given up. We have become numb to tragedies that do not personally affect us, and we have concluded that nothing we do ever seems to make a difference in how our elected officials behave.

We can argue about whether some of these possibilities are more likely than others, but this should not eclipse the fact that more than one of them could be accurate at the same time. Some conservatives want to focus only on the first possibility, while some liberals are determined to characterize any criticism of Islam as "gross" and "racist." Many liberals hone in on the second possibility and make this all about gun control, while many conservatives see this as causing more harm than good. But this could be about Islam and about gun control simultaneously. Many experts tasked with assessing risk keep reminding us of the third possibility, only to be ignored again and again. And yet, the merit of this possibility does not eliminate the first two from consideration even if it forces us to be more realistic about what we could accomplish through the second.

It is the last of the four possibilities that might be the biggest kick in the gut. Nobody wants to accept this one. And yet, if one thinks back to Newtown or whichever other tragedy one remembers thinking at the time "This will be the turning point," it is difficult to deny. To some degree, we have habituated to tragedies like this. We have seen again and again that nothing changes. Liberal politicians will talk about gun control and rail against the NRA without really expecting it to go anywhere. Conservative politicians will push the terrorism label while suggesting that the body count would have been much lower if all the victims had been armed at the time. And once nobody is looking, they will continue to cut the portion of their state budgets that fund mental health services.

Most of us will be outraged, and that is not a bad thing. We should be outraged when something like this happens. And yet, we will be outraged only for a fairly brief time. We will quickly fatigue of this particular outrage, set it aside, and move on to the next one. The day after the Orlando murders, I was able to find people on Twitter complaining about "manspreading." They had already moved on. Or perhaps Orlando never even registered for them.
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