Oregon has never had a mass killing on the scale of last weekend’s atrocity in Orlando, although we all know this could change at any moment, even in the time between these words being written and being read. At any moment we – or any other Americans – could look up and see CNN showing pictures of large numbers of our loved ones, see our local police chiefs telling a hastily assembled press conference that it’s too soon to understand just what happened.
Oregon has, in fact, already had too many mass shootings; knowing that one is too many, we’ve had many more than that. The same weekend the Orlando gay club was blasted apart, we saw this year’s graduation ceremonies for Umpqua Community College, ending an academic year that began with nine of its students and faculty murdered by yet another loner who couldn’t fit into society but possessed military-level armament.
At that commencement, Umpqua County Sheriff John Hanlin told the graduates, “Look at the class of 2016. Look around at everybody here today. Look at what we are made of. And be proud. We are UCC strong. We’re UCC strong.”
In contrast to that message of unity and strength, the days after the Orlando atrocity have been all about America’s divisions, about the dangers of being gay, about dark warnings against Muslims, here and everywhere. The outrage takes in a range of our hottest-button issues: the treatment of gays, terrorism, angry outcasts voicing their grievances with battlefield weapons.
In moments of agonizing trauma, it has been the calling of national leadership to bring us together, from Ronald Reagan after the Challenger explosion, to Bill Clinton after the Oklahoma City bombing, to George W. Bush after 9/11, to Barack Obama’s appearances after many too many mass shootings. There’s a time when the job isn’t about punching, but about opening your arms as wide as you can.
But then there was Donald Trump’s response, the day after the shooting. Repeating his call to ban Muslims from entering the country, he also attacked those already here, warning, “You have many, many, many people, right now living in the United States who are worse than (the shooter)… You have thousands of shooters like this, with the same mentality out there in this country.”
Meanwhile, a lot of politicians managed to condemn the Orlando murders without mentioning the identity of the people who were killed, and the likely reason they died.
Oregon has never had a mass killing on the scale of Orlando. But Oregon, like other places, has had searing experiences to divide us – and has come through them.
Throughout the 1990s, and into the 21st century, Oregon went through repeated corrosive initiative battles over the rights of its gay citizens. The fights were bitter and hard, with angry messages flowing into Oregon from around the world, and a police car stationed outside an Oregonian editorial writer’s house after the paper took a strong stand against one of the anti-gay measures.
But Oregon came through the hard time without compromising its citizens’ rights, and with a strong new activism of pro-rights forces. And now no sane politician – admittedly, not an all-inclusive category – would see an anti-gay approach as a strategy for Oregon political success.
At about the same time in California, a governor based his re-election campaign on an anti-immigrant initiative, including grainy ads showing immigrants seeping unstoppably across the border. The governor and the initiative won, but the campaign set off a Hispanic political mobilization that has changed the state’s electoral atmosphere thumpingly.
If Oregon and California didn’t achieve universal enlightenment, they have seen widespread mobilization, which has its own useful effects.
And the country has indeed seen some glimmers of enlightenment.
Last week, a post-Orlando rally in Salt Lake City was addressed by the lieutenant governor of Utah. He was, he admitted, not an obvious choice to speak there – a balding, straight, youngish Republican politician with a less than entirely inclusive record – but he had something to say.
“I’m here because those 49 people were gay. I’m here because it shouldn’t matter,” Spencer Cox told the crowd. “But I’m here because it does.”
He was there, Cox explained, for a simple reason: “You changed my heart.”
The world, Ernest Hemingway reminded us, breaks everybody. But afterwards, some people are strong at the broken places.
Afterwards, some places are strong at the broken places.
Orlando can be.
And if we’ve learned anything over two centuries, as opposed to months of anguish and anger, America will be.
NOTE: This columnn appeared in the Sunday Oregonian, 6/19/16.