The Introverse, chapter 4 - Pulse
The Cast - David Paddock
A large number of people down the street died for being like me. Let's talk about that.
I spent most of Sunday thinking about and most of Monday typing what I wanted to say about Pulse. As an affluent white male living in the United States, I have a well-defined role when the topic of civil strife comes up in mixed company: namely to deflect the conversation toward a safe zone where dialogue is once again possible or, failing that, to just shut up. However, though I am four to a royal on inherited conveniences, I do get to say my piece when one topic set surfaces, on account of my owning an androgynous dog suit. This is one of those all-too-often grieving moments when people I know who aren’t so touched as to possess their own androgynous dog suit defer to me on the matter or, in an act of undue kindness, care what I have to say about it—phrased in anguish or exasperation or bullishness or camaraderie or flat-out optimism as the mood requires. I don’t take the responsibility lightly; the social news cycle may largely insulate itself from detail or nuance, but these statements still do coalesce to form the barometer of public health. So what was keeping me from spinning some appropriate rhetoric for a captive audience? Two problems.
Problem number one: I was not there. Though I was present at a party scant few blocks from the shooting and would have glimpsed the mayhem from my car had I left said party a few minutes later, I was never present at ground zero and I know none of the victims personally. Any account of my feelings on the matter will be secondhand at best and, as a twisted perk of how horrific the scene was, there will be plenty of eyewitness testimony to read in the coming weeks. This won’t deter most LGBT commentators from weighing in hard and fast, as is their charge as the face of a union; I simply do not have that level of confidence in my feelings on the matter.
Problem number two: I am not a mourner. The exact vector of this attitude eludes me, but I feel alienated from most of the heartache being passed around at the moment. I broke down once on Sunday, when a passing comment I’d made that night at the party cruelly intersected with the reality of what happened, but otherwise I can honestly only speak in the direction of other people like me who are watching the inevitable unfold rather than a disaster. We shed our tears slowly in the procession up to this point, and though we are as inconsolable as anyone else, the feeling we can’t resolve is not a pain. It is a deadness: watching the laws of scale overcome human will, an event that we saw coming a mile away and have a hell of a time even pretending to be shocked by when it finally comes true.
So what does someone like me do, compromised in this way? In a move that shouldn’t surprise you—and certainly should have occurred to me much sooner—I did what I do best (or most, at any rate). I examined.
Forecast by nothing besides sheer statistical possibility and the unabated existence of evil, the Pulse nightclub has undergone a wicked transcendence from haven to martyr in a war most of us prayed had finished eleven months ago on the heels of the greatest liberation in our community’s history. We’ve now had it maliciously confirmed that this conflict is still in progress and that its frontline is at the mercy and imagination of any person committed to doing us harm.
I’m not even the thousandth person to comment on how much our social news cycle is like a game of Mad Libs during times of crisis, but does anyone believe they wouldn’t have been able to guess, in some detail, exactly how this would play out on our phones? Here are some spoilers: Everyone’s heart goes out to all the victims; individual derision of the killer; confirm identity of the killer; simultaneous blame upon his religion, guns, and the state of mental healthcare (which side you pick is of course dictated by your political affiliations); assertion that this affects all Americans, not just the group targeted, ensuring no specific political groundswell; the targeted group gives a middle finger to those trying to generalize the harm, ensuring no broad political groundswell; the NRA will assert that guns in the hands of more people would have mitigated or prevented the incident, making the organization sound even more tone-deaf to outsiders than it already does; gun control advocates will capitalize on the moment to posit an ultimatum that highballs their influence so fully that nothing gets passed while making them look even more naive than they already do; blame will be lain at the Muslim community’s feet (as we cynically suspected and now know), indirectly damaging their relations with their neighbors; a million liberals will point out that Muslims aren’t the only ones guilty of this kind of behavior by mocking Christian rednecks, allowing everyone else to continue ignoring them for being petty on a point of life or death concern; law enforcement will want more funding; law enforcement’s efficacy and motives will come into question; cynics will demand that we not politicize an issue of such dire concern; countercynics will demand we stop pretending that non-political debate is a real thing. Everyone’s right; everyone’s wrong. Throughout the affair, everyone will point out how much good is being done or, failing that, how unified we are as a people, building solidarity; we will gradually come to view this solidarity as a cure for the disease itself and, after about a week, everyone will go back to their respective pastimes; some small but depressing fraction of the population will likely come to view the whole incident as a setup or hoax perpetrated variously by the government, the gay agenda, ISIS, or the shadow banking system behind all three. We re-obtain equilibrium, and move on.
And maybe we should do that. Maybe that is the proper cycle of public outcry in an era where speaking your mind has become so cheap?
The trouble is I don’t believe that, at least not in this case.
While I was at the aforementioned party, T-minus 2 hours and a short walk from the massacre, a friend told me that, when prompted to describe me to other people, his first or nearly first descriptor of me is as a furry. He didn’t elaborate on whether he also says that I’m gay, though if we use the broad base definition where gay means any preference left of fully heterosexual, the first term suffices to mean the second in nearly all cases including mine. Calling someone a furry is so vague it barely qualifies as a description on a personal level, but it’s a significant mark of affiliation—one that many furries aren’t willing to divulge even to their friends due in no small part to the sexual connotations. I don’t share that concern with my comrades, mostly because by the time I was done internally reconciling what I’d discovered about myself within that term, saying it out loud to the world felt like an afterthought. It still does: when my friend then mentioned that he fends off quizzical responses by asserting that its something I’m proud of, I told him with a shrug that it doesn’t feel at all like pride. It’s just who I am, and the least I can do is not hide that fact.
I woke up alive the next day because I expressed that conviction an extra mile down the street.
This is not an instance of emergent chaos akin to an event at a school or movie theater. The only way you would have been shot on Sunday was if you made the commitment to attend a club built to comfort roughly 4% of the population in a private space. This is a population who already demonstrates courage in the face of interpersonal and/or familial strife just to show up. I’m personally opposed to the use of hate crime for determining sentencing, but the distinction is important outside the courthouse because it gives fear a directionality and focus to permit much greater harm. Even living under the public visage of tolerance and understanding we presently do, being openly gay puts a social pressure on those who commit to it that many only barely overcome. The fastest (but far from only) proof of this reality is in homelessness statistics, where LGBT is massively overrepresented, ranging geopolitically between two and five times the ratio one would expect all else being equal. Under this pressure, what are the odds another closeted kid will stay quiet for every bullet fired on Sunday? What are the odds that ratio approaches 10 to 1? Or 100 to 1? 4% of 320 million Americans is over 12 million people.
12 million targets.
As the old wisdom goes, response should be in proportion to the crime. This raises two questions: what would be proportional, and what avenues of response are available? We can average out mass shootings, horrifying as they may be, across total deaths in the US and lamely conclude that doing something about them is too messy (and by “can” I, of course, mean that’s exactly what we’ve done up to this point). That’s not the case in this instance. Pulse upends the statistics of violent hate crime. While the number of violent crimes committed against people because of their gender is in the thousands every year, virtually all of these are assault or intimidation cases. In 2012, the FBI considered only one murder to be motivated by the orientation of the victim. In 2013, it was two. In 2014, it was zero. More people died at Pulse than have on federal record in the past 8 years across ALL categories of hate crime. I’ll grant that the FBI’s definition for a hate crime is exceptionally strict and that this is all sidesteps the Pandora’s Box of police brutality, but this is still a single case worth our consideration. Even if this a fluke—which it almost certainly isn’t (gay clubs have been the target of incompetent arsonists for quite some time)—this is a fluke worth avoiding in the future.
And so, with that groundwork of momentum in place, what are the angles of application? Let’s break down what happened. Everything I’m about to cite is current Wikipedia knowledge as of the morning of June 14th.
Who was the perpetrator? His name was Omar Mateen, 29 years old, security guard, pledged allegiance to ISIL just prior to the massacre, though had other allegiances prior that seemed contradictory. Fighting-age males continue a pretty much unbroken streak of causing these incidents. If we feel the need to screen anyone at airports or events, confining the hunt to males between the age of 16 and 40 seems like the only reliable marker. This is old news to most government bureaus, however, so let’s keep going. We could pull the Muslim card, except that the FBI had actually investigated Omar before (twice) and dropped their suspicions. No matter what we’ve been told by Wikileaks or Snowden about the scale of the operations, the surveillance capacities of the United States are limited to the speed our data can be analyzed and there simply aren’t enough NSA office blocks anywhere to scrupulously comb through all of it. If Omar was motivated by ISIL, the organization has already semi-officially declared that they favor lone wolf acts of violence without coordination with the home state, which make the traditional network tapping strategies pretty useless for stopping this kind of thing. Finally, by the testimony of several individuals, Omar appears to have been a real piece of shit as a person, but there aren’t enough jails on the planet for all those cases. Not much remedy there.
Let’s breakdown the action. At 2 am, Omar approached the club with an assault round-chambered carbine and a full-size Glock, apparently evading an armed guard on his way inside the building, though it seems likely he could have killed the guard if necessary. Once inside, Omar had full agency to do as he pleased under the cover of loud music and a crowded venue. It’s not clear whether anyone attempted to subdue him during the initial breach, but it’s quite clear no one succeeded. Ten minutes in, Omar had holed up with hostages and was going nowhere while first responders arrived in droves outside. Protocol prevented the police from engaging for another three hours while full assessment of the situation and mobilization of SWAT took place. At 5am, SWAT did its thing, smashed the wall with an armored car and took Omar out, freeing thirty hostages.
Let’s get the most political lump in the whole affair out of the way now. Everyone listening already has an opinion on the state of gun control in the United States, and I’m not vain enough to believe I’ll make up anyone’s mind for them here. I’m merely here to examine paths of resolution specific to this incident, not sketch a grand scheme. Maybe another day.
Let’s go with more freedom instead of less first. How many laws would have to be relaxed for Omar to have been stopped by a vigilante hero? No one in the club was likely carrying because, by Florida statute, it is illegal to carry in “Any portion of an establishment licensed to dispense alcoholic beverages for consumption on the premises, which portion of the establishment is primarily devoted to such purpose;”. Let’s abolish that clause. Now does anyone have a gun? No, probably not, on account of this being a nightclub where keeping a gun on one’s person would be a hindrance to the festivities, namely dancing. Contrary to cultural assumption, the reason has nothing to do with gender: I know quite a few frightenly well-armed gay guys. Alright, let’s say, with the relaxed legislation of this universe, gun prices fall, more people buy them, more people carry them, and one of them happens to be present. That would make this person the second armed savior on the scene, remember? The guard at the front—an off duty police officer, mind—already failed to apprehend Omar on his way in. That guard was presumably on the lookout for trouble, has training of some caliber in apprehending suspects, and much better equipment with which to do so. To whatever degree it truly mattered, this guard stood a much better chance than our vigilante would have at ending this situation before it became as horrible as it did. Not to strawman my own argument, but police reports also suggest Omar was looking to pick up body armor but couldn’t find any to his liking. If he had breached the premises wearing a jacket full of inserts, nothing an everyday hero could strap to his waistband would have stopped Omar short of a headshot which, in the noise and confusion of a nightclub, would be a problematic thing to need to count on. I’m not saying this isn’t preferable to the odds of the real event, but the venue makes those odds very long even in a state of relaxed regulation.
How about less freedom? What would it take to stop this incident from occurring entirely? Right off the bat, Omar’s occupation makes full-on circumvention a tough goal. He was a security guard. Even if we go with the nuclear option where civilian ownership is fully illegal, Omar was positioned to acquire a firearm if one could be found. Anything short of that level of restriction nets him at least the Glock 17: a handgun that is too large for practical concealed carry and fires the most plain Jane ammunition this side of .22’s—a gun that would only be banned if absolutely all other pistols were banned first. Let’s be more specific, then: suppose an assault weapons ban is in place, barring him legal access to a semi-auto rifle. Assuming that he walks the straight and narrow until the incident to avoid blowing his cover (as he seems to have done) in this alternate scenario he walks in with two, maybe four (why not, they’re cheap) pistols, each with 10-round compliant magazines and a pouch full of fresh ones, as he would be able to procure under anything but the most draconian gun laws imaginable. This doesn’t actually change all that much about the scene—pistols with fewer rounds can still be reloaded easily if no one is trying to stop you and a crowded nightclub doesn’t demand the accuracy of a rifle—but it does make a difference in the number of casualties, even if we assume the same volume of fire. It’s true that rifles only account for a small fraction of all gun homicides, but you are far less likely to survive a hit from a .223 Remington than a 9mm. There’s a reason the saying goes that a pistol’s job is to get you back to your rifle. Of course, if Omar was willing to go outside the law in his procurement process, this all becomes moot, but I have to give the FBI a nod on this one. It seems quite likely Omar went with a fully off-the-shelf loadout out of paranoia about his prior investigation, in which case legally limiting his options would have truly been effective. We can’t know that for sure, and the implication that a surveillance state is the key to effective gun laws is one I’m very uncomfortable with, but the apparatus is in place already. If we’re going to care about mass shootings this much more than the general death toll from firearms, semi-automatic rifles chambered for mil spec rounds don’t have much of a leg to stand on. Concealed carriage and all the rest is in the air, and will remain that way.
Next, we consider the preparations of the facility itself for a disaster of this kind and what could have reasonably been done to mitigate it. I understand that, even posed as an exercise, some of you will see this as victim-blaming in the vein of date rape dress code. To this contention, I will merely say: no one deserves to die for your principles but you.
Unfortunately, platitudinal grandstanding aside, not much comes to mind here. Pulse had an armed police officer guarding the front door; I’m not sure how much more prepared we could possibly have expected them to be. First response was good but confined by physical laws to be insufficient; Omar was safely barricaded in a few minutes. An armed guard inside might have made things tougher, but besides becoming rapidly cost-prohibitive even that would not guarantee protection against a well-trained belligerent with an assault rifle that knew the guard would be there (as Omar would have). Another major exit might have helped, but without being prompted to consider their options, I assume most people just ran for the closest cover they could find initially, whether that got them closer to the outside or not. After all, who expects to be trapped in a building with a shooter for more than ten minutes? That’s not your first thought when shit goes down. How about public preparedness? While I’m all for teaching kids not to panic when things go wrong in school, expecting that someone will be both brave and coordinated enough to handle a situation like this is unrealistic. Public funding for emergency response training might be order to at least mitigate crowd effects and improve aftermath outcomes, but other than that there isn’t much to bet on here.
Let’s turn to why it happened. As previously mentioned, Omar was basically a piece of shit as a person, which is usually the consequence of internal turmoil, but that’s not much to go on. The world isn’t a happy enough place yet to catch and remedy everyone’s inner demons before they cause harm. The religious motive is the most obvious, which sucks because its also the least helpful. Whether a temperate, non-violent Muslim aligned with the Western values of self-determination and freedom is something the Qur’an can be construed to promote or not, there are adherents to Islam of every stripe and quality both here and abroad. The Muslim community has a powerfully ironic weakness when attempting to appeal to Americans: they are too diverse. They account for around 1.7 billion people, representing the majority in 57 countries, not all of which are oligarchic feudal oil states. With the exception of a reverence for Mohammed, identifying yourself as Muslim is less specific than saying you live in the Western hemisphere. I have read the surveys; I know that a quarter of British Muslims openly support the institution of Sharia; I am fully aware of just how large a fraction of Islamic society axiomatically opposes our (and, almost precisely, my) way of life. At the same time, we didn’t get to the point where I can say something like this in public by denouncing the hordes containing our enemies. We almost never do. In fact, we’re sitting on one of the more poignant examples of that truth at this very moment.
The conversation on gay marriage shifted in tone in the run up to its federal legalization. For most of my lifetime, the primary undercurrent of being gay was one of adventurous promiscuity. The word “homosexual” was well chosen: the focus was on sex and the freedom to have it with whomever one wished. Noble as that message was in essence, it has an air of belligerence that did little to convince bystanders, let alone the devout. Then, over the last decade, the mood changed. The underpinning switched from “sex” to “love”, without the latter simply being a euphemism for the former as it so often seemed to be before. Being gay suddenly had layers to it that used to be sovereign territory of the boyfriend and girlfriend, the fiancees, the husband and wife. These dynamics were presumably always in play, but they got drowned out in public consciousness by the novelty and flaunt of a man or woman lying with one’s own. It wasn’t until the message flipped from standing up for ourselves to standing up for those we care about that things changed, and once they did they changed faster than anyone had imagined. We put down the sword and picked up the shield. There are times when we will identify a true enemy and be forced to pick that sword up to combat them lest our shield not hold. The religious of the world are not a true enemy. Some among them may be, and as a whole they may be a conduit of some evil, but we have friends among them, and there isn’t much greater evil we can perpetrate than friendly fire in a conflict where we are so few.
(Just to cheekily extend this analogy to the broader landscape, there are around 320 million US citizens and 7.2 billion global citizens. 320/7200 is around 4%. You know who else only makes up 4% of the world?)
Do we just need to make more friends in the Middle East? Does that stop this? I am not even remotely equipped to tackle the geopolicy side of this question. I hope the answer’s that simple, but history and common sense suggest that it’s not. Someone else will have to fill in this blank.
So what conclusion am I coming to here? A surveillance machine we’re already trying to dismantle because it’s too big didn’t catch Omar. He bought an assault carbine that probably shouldn’t have been legal but was by no means necessary for him to make the news. Likewise, no one on-site was carrying at the time and the law probably had no impact on whether that would have been the case. The building wasn’t conducive to mass exodus, but the situation and venue were also so peculiar that most of the patrons who weren’t near the door probably didn’t consider just how long they were going to be in danger. Looking at Omar after the fact, anyone would say he had the profile of a killer-in-training, but there are literally millions of people in that camp, including me and nearly all my friends if you squint hard enough. If I had been the killer, it wouldn’t surprise a single soul who doesn’t know me personally. Omar was Muslim...as are 3 million other Americans. We might’ve done better to keep track of him after the FBI first laid eyes on him, but we didn’t, nor did he do much to warrant more scrutiny until it was too late.
So, if we roll back the tape and implement these solutions ideally: the disaster still occurs, a few more people leave before they can get shot, fewer people succumb to their wounds, and edge cases are turned on the expertise of comrades who know a thing or two about trauma. For hypothesis’s sake, let’s say these changes cut the damage in half. I’ll take 25 fewer lost friends and 50 fewer hospitalizations. Public perception of catastrophe be damned: that’s progress.
Nonetheless, I don’t want this to seem like it hinges on the gun question, because we do still have to grapple with the first point: the disaster still occurs. Guns are sexy and they make for more politically-charged, news-exploitable headlines and analysis but they are not the only way belligerent forces can or have done us harm on a mass scale. We need to come to some understanding of how to deal with this kind of thing…how to deal with knowing that somewhere at an unknown but all-too-soon point in the future, Americans will be executed under the initiative of an enemy we didn’t even know we had, who looks and talks like—for all the world save their final actions *is*—one of us.
And so we’re back to the social cycle we all so hate but cling to so needily. I listen to Obama give an overly worded, ineffectual speech. I hear a few people at the Tony’s try to give a hot take on the situation offstage. I read the NBCNews report where they call the Sig MCX Omar was carrying an “AR-15-style rifle” and simply imagine how many 2nd amendment nerds are going to let out a self-satisfied snort when they read that line. How are we supposed to think and talk about this with each other? Are we ripping ourselves apart in these moments, jutting back and forth between the good and the evil inside and out, or is this hive mind smarter than we give it credit for, cambering its way toward an equilibrium where, over all the shouting at the periphery, we settle into a warm balance between the hardship on one hand and our spirit on the other? Is there any way to know which it is and, if not, what good does thinking about it like this do?
This is the moment where paranoid optimism shows its truest virtue. We have a crisis on our hands and we need to concern ourselves with how it is affecting us, because we’re going to use every lesson we learn today tomorrow. To believe in doom at this moment is to bring it on. To believe things will all sort themselves out is to let the machine unwittingly fall apart. Instead, believe that we have work to do and that, if we all chip in, it might just get done. We’ve come a long way; we’ve got a ways to go yet.