Orlando: Notes on a Massacre

By Stan Persky | July 6, 2016


Then it’s the day after. Or two days… or more. On Sunday morning, June 12, 2016 — but even the day after it feels like weeks ago — when I got up around 6:30, 7, in Berlin, where I live, it was 1 a.m. in Orlando, Florida; still Saturday night there, for all practical partying purposes, spilling over into Sunday. There and here. Here, I have a 7-day-a-week unspectacular morning routine of reading-writing-thinking, the typical life of an intellectual “advanced in age,” as the Czech writer Bohumil Hrabel eponymously put it in Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age. I like that phrase, advanced in age; it’s better than “old” or all the euphemisms meant to soften the blow. My mind wanders; it should; it works better that way, as the poet George Stanley once said about permanently broken hearts.

That morning, I was at my desk, cup of coffee in hand, where I happened to be reading Malise Ruthven’s essay-review, “Inside Obedient Islamic Minds” in the two-month old April 7 issue of the New York Review (as usual, I’m always behind in my reading).

Ruthven’s piece looks at a batch of current related books: one about the threat of Islamic militancy; another about purist Salafist doctrines from Saudi Arabia; and there’s one that’s an expose written from inside the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. I didn’t have any particular intention in reading about Islamic extremist ideology; it was coincidental, just the next unread piece in that issue of NYR; only later did that morning’s reading seem tied in some tangential way to the events in far-away Orlando. Ruthven reminds us that Salafism, rooted in the Arabic term for “pious forefathers,” is “the ultra-conservative movement that holds sway in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” with its “commitment to textual literalism, its hostility to rational engagement with the Muslim scriptures, its rejection of pluralism, its occasional embrace of violence…”

Next, I finished the last few pages of Michel Serres’ short book-length essay,Thumbelina: The Culture and Technology of Millennials (2012; tr. 2015), that I’d been reading the night before. Serres, an 85-year-old French philosopher (mostly philosophy of science) who teaches at Stanford, tries to make a case in favour of thumb-using millennials sending messages on their smartphones. A francophone music teacher friend of mine, Rejean, a former colleague from my old school, Capilano University, had recommended it during a Facebook chit-chat, as an alternative to all the current griping by people our age about young people and their distractions. He wondered if there was an English translation of it yet (there is). Meanwhile, it’s “last call” in the Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, 2 a.m. The millennials and beyond, whose incessant messages Serres approves, are still dancing, partying, and yes, sending those little SMS’s and videos.

Pulse nightclub.

Pulse nightclub.

Serres tries to work up some enthusiasm for the Tom Thumb and Thumbelina culture of digital and digit-driven millennial communications. They have all knowledge at their fingertips, he says, they have new virtual bodies, they are rightfully rebelling against the regimentation represented by “sage on the stage” old-style pedagogies. But Serres seems to be conflating mere information with knowledge; mixing up teaching with consumer preference; and he doesn’t quite explain how these prodigies are going to acquire the ability to distinguish between actual knowledge and internet rumours, or satiric news items from The Onion that seem more real than the news, or blatant conspiracy theories. How will they find the Los Angeles Review of Books? How will they be able to tell whether U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump is “telling it like it is” or if he’s just a dangerous demagogue? I kind of like Serres’ idea as a what-if notion; what-if the new digital world is really great?, let’s imagine it!, but remain unconvinced by his “argument” or, since it’s French philosophy, by the quasi-poetic “text.” Far away, unbeknownst to me, shots are popping and bullets thudding into human beings in a Florida nightclub.

Pulse nightclub, Orlando.

Pulse nightclub, Orlando.

After my morning read, the next step in my daily routine is thinking about writing. I dithered a little more, re-reading the essay I’m currently scribbling, or more accurately, that I’m currently stuck in the middle of, a “letter from Berlin” tentatively headed “Mein Trumpf, Brexit, and Europe’s Rising Right.” Somewhere in my puttering around, I must’ve looked at the news sites, glancing at the early reports of the shooting in Orlando, and thinking that I’ll check it out later when there are some actual details. Gay bar in Orlando, Florida… Orlando… isn’t that Disney World? Anyway, later.

The Sunday tennis final from Stuttgart, a little grass court lead-up event to the Wimbledon Grand Slam major later this month, is rained out, and in any case, the no-good Eurosport broadcaster was only showing the match on its pay channels, which I of course don’t have, so no Dominic Thiem to look at on TV. Thiem, for those who don’t follow this apparently arcane sport, is the new, “hot” — in at least two senses — rising star of the tennis circuit.

The Euro 2016 soccer championship game between Germany and Ukraine wasn’t on until 9 p.m. (from Lille, France); and anyway it was almost time to meet my Sunday lunch partner. We met at the U-Bahn platform at Nollendorfplatz (near where he lives) and rode across town to eat tacos at a Mexican restaurant, Cancun, near Alexanderplatz on the east side of the city. In between the subway and the tacos, we had our usual little Sunday walk (my mobility is diminishing), checking out the progress on the construction of the replica of the Berlin City Palace, the residence of Prussian kings and German Emperors for two centuries (18th to 20th), that’s being rebuilt on the grave… well, the former site of the old East German parliament.

Berlin is under construction and infrastructure repair once again — it seems like every major thoroughfare is half-blocked with building-site sidings. Over lunch, we exchanged our mutual rundowns of the news (he had read about outrageous housing prices in Vancouver in the German press, and I had read about infrastructure failures in Germany in The Guardian — the current bitter quip is: If you want to see German efficiency, go to Switzerland). It’s past 5 a.m. in Orlando.

Helping the wounded.

Helping the wounded.

There, far across an ocean, but it’s close as a click on a computer key. The “first responders” have confronted the killer, armed with a semiautomatic assault rifle, and the “active shooter,” as they like to say on TV, is “down.” Inside the nightclub, at dawn, there are 49 dead bodies, plus that of the killer, blood pooled and splattered everywhere, 53 more wounded people on their way to the nearest medical facility, two blocks from Pulse.

Orlando streets.

Orlando streets.

So, a normal summer-like Sunday in Berlin. Got home in mid-afternoon, turned on the machine to see if it was still raining in Stuttgart, and instead there was the Orlando massacre. Bad enough that there are nutty home-brew Islamic terrorists, now we have a home-brew Islamic terrorist-plus-homophobe-plus-wife-abuser-plus-possibly-mentally-ill-plus-maybe-self-hating-repressed-gay-with a second wife and 3-year-old son… but we don’t know all that yet. The first wave of coverage is mostly a loop of grim video bits, wounded, bleeding nightclub-goers being carried down the streets of Orlando at pre-dawn.

CNN, all the time.

CNN, all the time.

For the next couple hours, it’s CNN’s All-Terror-All-the-Time “rolling coverage,” complete with its lineup of counter-terrorism experts and police procedure pundits, the dribs and drabs of information (ballyhooed as “breaking news,” another of this year’s cliches), and eventually President Barack Obama, elegant and intelligent as always but sounding slightly weary (and who wouldn’t be after doing 15 or more TV comforter-in-chief speeches after mass murders and home-brew terrorism?). If the populace won’t throw out the Republicans, he sighs, there will never be gun control, and in the year of Trump “never” looks a lot closer than the “hopey-changey” stuff Sarah Palin got to mock during her 15 minutes of fame, way back in 2008. Remember her?

After a while, the infinite replay with minuscule revisions at CNN descends to a level of diminishing marginal utility where it’s all-repetition-all-the-time. Anyway, it’s 9 p.m., time for Germany-Ukraine on the soccer pitch (while North Americans are getting ready for hockey, the Stanley Cup-bound Pittsburgh Penguins on the ice, I guess – why so much sports?). And somewhere in all the details, the obvious fact registers about the murder victims (I’m tempted to say, the “war dead”): yes, they’re mostly young, mostly gay, but also, though I’d momentarily forgotten, mostly latinos, mostly guys in their 20s and 30s, many of them from Puerto Rico. The point of this rundown, this description of a perfectly ordinary day, is that we are always in the mundane, the familiar, the perfectly ordinary, when the apocalyptic moment arrives to reconfigure our idea of the real.

Then, it’s the morning after again. Rainy and grey here. If the rain’s not too heavy, I’ll walk down to the grocery and do some shopping. Now, there’s lots of stuff about the killer, on the TV, on the computer, on Facebook, but it’s still in the fog of war phase. The killer is named (but he can remain unnamed here), a 29-year-old security guard, American citizen, born in New York, Muslim, of Afghan descent. There’s his father, in a suit and tie, talking to the reporters. As the portrait of the killer is filled in, it’s like watching a TV soap opera you’re not particularly interested in seeing.

And even after the next surprising plot twist — is he a closeted self-hating gay? did his second wife know something, everything? — we still don’t know much about the now-dead assassin. The motives won’t make sense, because the motives don’t make sense. It’s like most of the other mass murderers that seem to be a specialty of American life. Even after you know that they watched violent video games before they blew away the children in the school, or that the little white supremacist terrorist had posed next to a Confederate flag for a Facebook selfie before killing the black churchgoers, or that the “self-radicalised” killer watched jihadi proselytising sermons on the internet, you still don’t know anything. What does “self-radicalised” actually mean?, you find yourself idly wondering.

The faces.

The faces.

The one thing that comes through for me are the photos and bio-bits about the dead. We scan their faces like we half-consciously cruise a roomful of patrons in a gay nightclub. That’s where the grief seeps in through my “no drama” exterior. Again, I wonder how I initially missed the fact (which appears obvious once you get it) that most of the dead are hispanic, people of colour, gays of colour. “The LGBT community,” the TV says again and again. All these phrases of the season, almost instant cliches. The TV will soon say, “… and they closed all the beaches out of an abundance of caution.”

I’m struck for an instant, while perusing… “cruising”… the faces of the dead, by the weirdness of how every level of reality/fantasy crosscuts everything else all the time. Thinking about the gay, dead latinos, I recall vaguely knowing about the particular awkwardness of becoming/being gay in traditionally macho hispanic cultures compared to… what? oh, white middle-class liberal, secular families. Then, about the same time as I’m absent-mindedly canvassing the sociological implications of gay latino lives, I’m also pondering, as if seeing reflections in a funhouse mirror now turned into a house of horror, latino gay porn I’ve seen on the machine. One of the things that distinguishes latino pornsex is that it’s consistently the most frenetic sex of any of the ethnic groups or categories that the porn tube offers. And the fetish specialty niches for porn viewers, of ethnicities, acts, types, even body parts, are themselves notable. It’s all loco, man.

On Facebook that morning, the poet Ron Silliman is reposting Andrew Epsteins’s posting of Frank O’Hara’s 1955 poem about gay men dancing in a New York gay nightclub. Epstein is an English Dept. professor at Florida State University in Tallahassee, north of Orlando. On this morning after, or two mornings after, O’Hara’s poem comes through the “horror and great sadness” of Orlando, Epstein says on his Locus Solus blog about the mid-last century New York School of poets. O’Hara is there in the poem, so is John Ashbery, and the painter John Button, so is, surprisingly enough, of all people, my long-departed friend, Jack Spicer (who happened to be in New York in 1955). Well, we have lots of time, we of “advanced age,” still dancing. Sure, why not re-post? The last riposte.


Joe is restless and so am I, so restless.
Button’s buddy lips frame “L G T TH O P?”
across the bar.  “Yes!” I cry, for dancing’s
my soul delight.  (Feet! feet!) “Come on!”

Through the streets we skip like swallows.
Howard malingers.  (Come on, Howard.) Ashes
malingers.  (Come on, J.A.)  Dick malingers.
(Come on, Dick.)  Alvin darts ahead. (Wait up,
Alvin.)  Jack, Earl and Someone don’t come.

Down the dark stairs drifts the steaming cha-
cha-cha.  Through the urine and smoke we charge
to the floor.  Wrapped in Ashes’ arms I glide.

(It’s heaven!)  Button lindys with me. (It’s
heaven!) Joe’s two-steps, too, are incredible,
and then a fast rhumba with Alvin, like skipping
on toothpicks.  And the interminable intermissions,

we have them.  Jack, Earl and Someone drift
guiltily in. “I knew they were gay
the minute I laid eyes on them!” screams John.
How ashamed they are of us!  we hope.

— Frank O’Hara

It’s the morning after the morning after. Outside, on my way to the grocery, it’s a bit damp, grey, a little sad. No, it’s not a little sad. I’m sad.


Then it’s however-long-later. A few days, almost a week. There are stories, columns, analyses of the massacre in the media, postings all over my Facebook “news feed.” I tend to divide them up in my mind as useful, not useful-to-downright-evil, and just blah. Nothing to read here.

Terry Glavin, the Ottawa Citizen columnist and an old pal of mine, is helpful. He says,



“We are all supposed to choose one narrative over another, as though it must be that [the killer] was either: a) a devoted Islamist whackjob; b) a vicious, bloodthirsty homophobe; c) a dangerously self-loathing, deeply closeted gay man; or d) a psychopath of the kind that no sensible government would allow anywhere near a firearm.

“But if you want to be a Hezbollah martyr or a ISIL sleeper operative, those are pretty well the four key job-application prerequisites right there. There is no competition going on among and between these things. It’s the character profile of the misogynist, homophobic, jihadist terror cadre from the Taliban, to al-Qaida, to Boko Haram and back again…

“It’s also not just possible to be insane and a jihadi terrorist at the same time — it’s more or less mandatory.” (Terry Glavin, “Beware of self-serving, fact-averse narratives about what transpired in Orlando,” The National Post, June 16, 2016.)

Then there’s the not-at-all helpful. It’s an essay by Zaid Jilani,  published on a left-wing website called The Intercept, run by Glenn Greenwald, the journalist best known for his reports a couple years back about the classified surveillance information made public by the whistleblower Edward Snowden. Jilani’s piece is headed, “Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton Call for Bombing ISIS After Orlando Shooting That ISIS Didn’t Direct.”

You don’t have to read much of it to get the drift:

“Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump reacted to the Orlando shooting with evidence that they can agree on at least one thing: bombing people,” writes Jilani. Whoops, we’re trekking through loaded territory. Watch out for ideological IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices).

An incoherent Trump remark is offered up (incoherent Trump remarks and rants are fairly easy to locate): “We have generals that feel we can win this thing so fast and so strong, but we have to be furious for a short period of time, and we’re not doing it!” the presumptive Republican Party presidential nominee complained. “Are you saying… ?” the Fox TV hosts eggs on the former Reality TV personality. “We’re going to have to start thinking about something,” Trump darkly murmurs.

Jilani, the Intercept scribe, then provides equal time for Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic Party presidential nominee, to make a hawkish remark, “along the same lines,” namely, “We should keep the pressure on, ramping up the air campaign.”

Adds Jilani, “Both candidates neglected to consider that no operational links between ISIS and the alleged Orlando shooter… have been discovered. While [the killer] pledged allegiance to ISIS shortly before the attacks…” he appeared confused about the various terror groups. Actually, the Intercept statement is false.

Clinton indeed duly noted that the terrorist apparently hadn’t had direct contact with ISIS, he’d merely been “inspired” by ISIS propaganda on the internet. But leaving aside these Talmudic distinctions, the killer pledged allegiance to a terrorist organization that had called for would-be terrorists to act on behalf of Islamist terrorists. He not only phoned 911 to register this allegiance in the midst of the massacre, but during the several-hour standoff period, he posted and searched for news of the shootings on Facebook itself – the ultimate act of social media self-absorption. Further, ISIS subsequently praised the Orlando shooter. Yes, various of the assassin’s remarks indicated he was not a political science genius in terms of identifying who’s who among terrorists, and yes, the shooter hadn’t had direct contact with the terrorist organization, he was merely, as the experts like to say, “self-radicalised.”

Speaking of neglect, Jilani neglects to mention that Clinton’s hawkish remark was delivered in the midst of an extended, mostly reasonable speech. The speech was about the heartbreaking tragedy in Orlando, the need to defend the rights of people who identify with the LGBT “community,” or category, and the usefulness of gun control – especially the control of semi-automatic assault weapons. She also criticised Trump’s fitness for public office, challenging his proposal to temporarily ban all Muslims from the U.S., and his bizarre suggestion that the victims in Orlando should have been armed themselves. Clinton offered some sensible remarks about avoiding denigrating Muslim communities, both those in the U.S. and those living in various nations throughout the world.

Barack Obama.

Barack Obama.

The point of Jilani’s article, obviously, is to argue that “they’re all the same,” that there’s no difference between Trump and Clinton, all American politicians (except maybe Bernie Sanders) are war-mongering U.S. imperialists. There’s something more than unhelpful about a left-winger who’s unable to discern a difference between Trump and Clinton (a hu-u-u-ge difference, as The Donald might say). People like that are missing something or, more likely, their vision is obstructed by the ideological mesh through which they filter reality. Sure, we all identify with ideologies in interpreting social reality, but it’s possible to be self-reflexively aware of your ideological framework, to question your own beliefs, to consciously try to sort out the seeming facts of a matter from your own biases, even though sometimes the reality and the beliefs can’t be disentangled. But the guy on the Intercept isn’t doing any of that, he’s simply pre-framing his version of the real. (Zaid Jilani, “Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton Call for Bombing ISIS After Orlando Shooting That ISIS Didn’t Direct,” The Intercept, June 13, 2016.)

The loss.

The loss.

A lot of the interminable commentary is neither here nor there. Masha Gessen, a writer I generally like, argues in “Terrorism: The Wrong Conversation” that vowing to fight international terrorism, even destroying ISIS, or banning assault rifles “will not prevent future attacks” (although she allows that the latter might help “reduce the number of potential casualties”). “If we focused on what we know,” she suggests, “…on loss rather than victory — and if we focused on what we feel rather than what we want — grief rather than revenge — it would be a step toward a less grand vision of violence. It would also be more emotionally honest and factually true.” (Masha Gessen, “Terrorism: The Wrong Conversation,” New York Review, June 13, 2016.)

Well, yeah, I suppose “a less grand vision of violence” might be “more emotionally honest,” but that doesn’t seem like much of a solution for dealing with all those terrorists, both the organized ones and the so-called “self-radicalised lone wolf,” or all those weapons of mass destruction that saturate daily American life (remember when “WMDs” was the phrase of the era?), or, in this case, the homophobia that was one of the possible mixed motives of the Orlando killer. Didn’t Obama immediately characterize the massacre as an act of terrorism and an act of hate? And perhaps we even have to say something about the role anti-homosexuality generally plays in Islamic cultures, not just radical Islamist terrorist culture, but in “normal” cultures where Islam is the predominant theology (a statement we might apply to both Christian and Judaic fundamentalism as well). And, anyway, is there a shortage of feelings of grief and loss? I haven’t noticed it. If anything, I worry about the well-intentioned sentimentality of assuring ourselves that “love” will win out over “hate.” Don’t we need Hillary Clinton’s “reasonable and resolved” response to Orlando (as Gessen characterized it), don’t we have to address, as Clinton did in this instance, terrorism, homophobia, gun control? Does that diminish our expression of grief?

Maajid Nawaz is helpful insofar as he discusses attitudes toward homosexuality in contemporary Islamic communities and societies. Writing in The Daily Beast, Nawaz insists that “the atrocious attack in Orlando, Florida was an act of ISIS-inspired jihadist terrorism that targeted gays” and is something that “must concern us all.” “Us” means, in this instance, something like “we liberals,” or more precisely, “we citizens” of secular democracies. “The killer of Orlando,” he says, “was a homophobic Muslim extremist, inspired by an ideological take 0n my own religion, Islam. In just the first seven days of this holy month of Ramadan, various jihadists have carried out attacks in Baghdad, Damascus, Idlib, Beirut, Orlando, and now Paris.” (Maajid Nawaz, “Admit It: These Terrorists Are Muslims,” The Daily Beast, June 14, 2016.)

In surveying the various explanations, claims, and grievances that the numerous observers and scholars, both Muslim and secular, make in the terrorism debate, Nawaz asks, “But what did gays in the Pulse nightclub have to do with any of that? Or the gays that ISIS regularly throws off the tallest buildings in Syria, for that matter?”

Nawaz argues that “we liberals” ought to become more realistic. “Just as this clearly has something to do with outdated gun laws, and just as those laws need reform, this also has something to do with Islam, which also needs reform today.” One  of those many somethings has to do with contemporary attitudes toward homosexuality.”Poll after poll of British Muslims has revealed a statistically significant level of homophobic opinion. A 2009 poll by Gallup found that 0 [that’s “zero”] per cent of Britain’s Muslims believed homosexual acts to be morally acceptable.” A 2013 Pew poll, Nawaz reports, found that “Muslims overwhelmingly say that homosexual behavior is morally wrong, including three-quarters or more in 33 of the 36 countries where the question was asked.” In the latest poll, from April 2016, “over half of British Muslims surveyed said they supported making homosexual acts illegal.” (Nawaz provides hyperlinks to all these claims in case you need to confirm them.)

He adds, “It did not used to be like this, so what happened?” In due course, Nawaz provides a thumbnail history of more favorable attitudes to homosexuality in Islamic societies during the culture’s “golden age” from the 9th to 12th centuries. But his point is that it’s a mistake for liberals to ignore such matters. “Liberals who claim that [these attitudes] have nothing to do with Islam today are being as unhelpful and as ignorant as conservatives who claim that this represents all of Islam. The problem so obviously has something to do with Islam. That something is Islamism, or the desire to impose any version of Islam over any society. Jihadism is the attempt to do so by force.” There’s more, but this gives us a taste of the debate about the reform of Islam. Nawaz suggests that if “we liberals” don’t participate frankly in such debates, for fear of contributing to anti-Muslim bias, such liberal silence will merely leave the conversation to right-wing populists like Donald Trump.

(I should add for those unfamiliar with this debate, that Nawaz is a prominent and controversial figure who might be described as a Muslim dissident. He appeared in conversation last year at Harvard University’s Institute of Politics with U.S. neuroscientist Sam Harris to discuss these and related issues. A critique of Nawaz’s views is available by Anwar Omeish, “Sam Harris, Maajid Nawaz, and the Illusion of Knowledge,” Harvard Political Review, Oct. 6, 2015. It can be accessed at http://harvardpolitics.com/harvard/sam-harris-maajid-nawaz-illusion-knowledge/.)

In the meantime, CNN has already moved on. By mid-week, it was devoting the enirety of its newscasts to “breaking news/rolling coverage” of another gruesome Florida story: a 2-year-old child, on holiday with his family at a nearby Disney resort, was snatched by an alligator while the boy was wading in shallow water. The now standard press conference, with the local sheriff, and the Wildlife and Fish Commisson (WFC), was presented in full. The rarity of the alligator attack was underscored – nothing like this had occurred in the 45 years that Disney was doing business in the area, and the corporation had indeed closed all its artificial beaches and ponds out of “an abundance of caution.” The child’s drowned body was found the next day, “intact,” as the authorities tellingly put it, seeking to dispel nightmare images.

Terry Glavin argued in his column about Orlando that we ought to resist feeling obligated to choose one “narrative” over another, especially in a world of mixed motives. Predictably, one reader-commenter wrote in to accuse Glavin of encouraging the eschewing of all narratives or explanations, blissfully ignoring Glavin’s cautions to avoid “self-interested, fact-averse” narratives. When Glavin bluntly says that it’s not merely possible to be insane and a murderous jihadi (and much else) at one and the same time, rather it’s practically mandatory, we’re getting a glimpse of the first light of complex dawn.


Berlin, June 17, 2016.













  • Stan Persky

    Stan Persky taught philosophy at Capilano University in N. Vancouver, B.C. He received the 2010 B.C. Lieutenant-Governor's Award for Literary Excellence. His most recent books are Reading the 21st Century: Books of the Decade, 2000-2009 (McGill-Queen's, 2011), Post-Communist Stories: About Cities, Politics, Desires (Cormorant, 2014), and Letter from Berlin: Essays 2015-2016 (Dooney's, 2017).

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