We at the Ashland Center for Nonviolence join with so many others throughout the world in mourning the shooting in Orlando, the worst mass shooting in US history. There is just too much to mourn at once: the 49 lives lost, the 53 additional wounded, the terror felt especially by LGBT people, the inevitable backlash against Muslims in the US, the increasingly shrill tone of the debate about assault rifles, and the opportunistic political responses that jump on one or the other of these facets.
What is the meaning of nonviolence at times like this? I remain convinced that nonviolence is never just about ending violence; it is also a spirit that seeks justice through peaceful means. There are competing ideas about justice in our world, of course. After all, it appears that the gunman in Orlando was motivated by a version of “justice” understood as punishment and moral condemnation. But this separates justice and peace; we must hold them together. “There is no way to peace,” said A.J. Muste. “Peace is the way.”
I am aware that quoting Muste’s famous words risks sounding like a platitude, especially at a time like this.
But we are already hearing the predictable calls for violent responses to violence—justice, that is, bought by in-kind retaliation and armed with the same arms that killed and injured over 100 people. I worry about what this means for our nation, and especially for two marginalized groups: American Muslims and LGBT people. In the coming days, we will be able to reflect on things like Orlando’s similarities to Charleston but why in many ways, not least politically, this is much more complicated for our society.
We will see a much more intense set of reactions along political fault lines that already are running deep. For example, if this is an event primarily about ISIS or radical Islam, “terrorism” will feel like a natural, go-to theme for many Americans to whom this fits a familiar pattern. When the word was used after Charleston, it was part of a slightly provocative argument to enlarge our perception and understanding of the kinds of people and motivations that can be involved in terrorist acts. In my view, that enlarging work is healthy.
But this otherwise good work can also include the consequence that the racism in the Charleston case becomes subsumed under more general talk of “religious liberty” and the freedom of people to gather for religious purposes. This came at a time when the Right was already talking about religious liberty (incidentally, in large part, due to legal developments in the US regarding LGBT rights). In the Orlando case, the more general talk about terrorism risks neglecting to address the homophobia that motivated it.
In the Guardian, Owen Jones addresses this tendency to say things like the Orlando attack was “against human beings” and “the freedom of all people to try to enjoy themselves.” In response, Jones characterizes an attitude in which “we only care about LGBT rights if Muslims are involved.” This means that while we are working to enlarge “terrorism” as a notion in order to match actual events, we are also going to have to work to notice the particulars (including the racism and homophobia) that haven’t always fit the tidier narrative that is often told about anti-western, freedom-hating Muslim radicals. And while it is only a part, it is still a crucial part of the way of peace: paying attention, listening to it all, noticing the details. As a gay man, Jones is surely much more aware of how this works in this instance than many others are.
At any rate, the old, incomplete narratives are now completely inadequate. The “they hate our freedoms” line has now run up against specific freedoms that those whose line that was have, in many cases, themselves fought against. That claim, on its own at least, now cuts both ways. This will be something to watch closely and to analyze in greater detail another day.
For today, the spirit is still one of grave mourning. As we mourn, I hope you will join me in continuing to foster nonviolence, understanding, and cooperation. Thank you for your commitment to ACN and to seeking a more just and peaceful world together.
Finally, in the spirit of seeking understanding, please mark your calendar for ACN's 2017 conference on the theme "Understanding Our Gun Culture," to be held on the Ashland University campus March 31–April 1, 2017.
Craig Hovey is executive director of the Ashland Center for Nonviolence.