A highly individualistic culture like the United States lends itself quite readily to bursts of emotion; citizens feel compelled, rightly or wrongly, to show that they feel as much as anyone else, if not more.
In the wake of the massacre in Orlando, this pattern reasserts itself once again in America.
But succumbing to anger, or depression, or any extreme emotion while trying to decide on policy is always a mistake. Here’s how to stay rational – and support good geopolitical decisions – in the wake of murder.
First: remember the Islamic State, and political Islam, is losing.
It may not seem that way, what with the drumbeat of stories about Islamist-inspired bloodshed dancing across your newsfeed from Florida to Afghanistan. But consider these basic facts:
The Islamic State itself, which the Orlando shooter pledged allegiance to in his last minutes, is shrinking, and fast (I won’t be using his name to get on with forgetting him as soon as possible). Iraqi army forces are assaulting Fallujah, the caliphate’s last major bastion in Anbar province, which will free up Iraqi troops for the inevitable offensive on Mosul. Without Mosul, IS goes back underground in Iraq.
Meanwhile, in Syria, IS has lost Palmyra and failed to take any major cities since last year. U.S.-aligned Kurdish forces are pushing into Raqqa province, where the self-declared caliphate’s capital lays, and towards Aleppo, where the westernmost IS forces lay. Assadist troops, butchers though they are, nevertheless are pushing into Raqqa as well. IS has failed to capture Deir-ez-Zour, a major Assadist stronghold on the Euphrates River that is otherwise surrounded by IS forces.
On the open battlefield, IS is being destroyed, and not by Western forces but by local Arab and Kurdish armies. IS cannot count on these armies just going home when they get tired; these are forces not of occupation but conquest.
Wider than that, political Islam in all stripes is beginning to grey. Shi’a political Islam, as headed by Iran, is moderating: Iranian conservatives are older and less vital than they used to be, and have even done a nuclear deal with the Great Satan. Iran’s interests are more national than religious these days: in order to retain power, Iran’s elites will ditch more and more of their political Shiism to survive.
Meanwhile, across the Persian Gulf, Saudi Arabia is embarking upon a radical economic transformation that will unleash modern forces unlike anything the kingdom has ever seen. This isn’t to say Saudi Arabia is about to become Europe, but it almost certainly does want to become more like Dubai, where Islam and modernism mix, but are both subordinate to economic goals. Saudi women may well soon drive as they enter the workforce in the numbers needed to save the Kingdom’s tottering economy.
Tunisia’s increasingly secular democratic regime is emerging as the region’s success story: even autocrats will look to see what went right there. Egypt tried an Islamist democracy, then begged it to be overthrown for a secular dictatorship. Yemen’s Houthis are more tribal than religious, despite their little flags; Gulf Arabs are all to varying degrees pushing the cultural envelope away from political Islam. Women in Afghanistan can both vote and serve in government; Pakistan’s government finally sees the Taliban as a threat to itself.
If one thinks of political Islam’s modern era as beginning in 1979 with the Iranian Revolution and the Grand Mosque Siege, then its height could be somewhere around the 1990s, where the Taliban ruled Afghanistan, Saddam added “Allah Akbar” to the Iraqi flag, and Saudi Arabia crushed a woman driver’s movement. That was the movement’s strategic highpoint: since then, it has been driven to more and more desolate locales, now finding its most vibrant heart in the forgettable river town of Raqqa.
If the reaction to Orlando is ramp up the War on Terror, such a decision would be wholly irrational and expensive: why double down on a war that is already being won, and won permanently?
Second: homophobia is wholly irrational, and society is increasingly accepting that.
Much of the motivation of the shooter seems to have been homophobia (and possibly an unhealthy dosage of self-hate). But homophobia, like any cultural obsession over sexual behavior, is wholly irrational in the 21st century. Homosexuality, and any sexual behaviors which may be viewed as alternative, are increasingly disconnected from the vibrancy and survival of our societies. With the advent of birth control, we can plan families; with increased medicine, we can combat sexual diseases; with better education, we can help people plan their sexual experiences better and mitigate risks.
Homophobia as a doctrine never made any sense, even in the way back times: ancient Greeks and Romans found little issue with homosexual behavior, though they still expected men to father children. Humanity has never needed exclusively heterosexual behavior to survive, let alone thrive. Homophobia instead wormed its way into the state as a sop to the nations they ruled: as states homogenized nations culturally in the 19th and 20th centuries, long-held prejudices against homosexuality, and any sexuality behind straight-laced hetero behavior, became law to mollify vast crowds being forced to give up other parts of their cultural identities.
You can see that best in conservative U.S. states, which lost the most culturally over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries. First the South lost its antebellum culture during and after the Civil War (not to mention slavery), then the West lost its cowboy culture to Federal land management and Eastern-invented suburbanization. Those are hardly the only examples, but to help ease the pain of change, policy makers often offered up gay rights as a sacrifice to cultural conservatives.
In many ways, society at large is finally abandoning homophobia: marriage equality and the proliferation of LGBT cultural edifices is indication of that. That this massacre has caused such an outpouring of support is also proof: other murderous anti-gay attacks were not received the same not so long ago.
That this was a lone attacker is also proof: even if the shooter had wanted to organize an anti-gay terror cell, it would be a much greater risk in 2016 that it would have been in, say, 1986, when homophobia was more acceptable, and more potential recruits might have existed.
If the reaction to Orlando is hysteria that gay rights will be turned back, one need only to glance at the recent past – and the reaction to the shooting – to realize that simply isn’t true.
Third: private firearm ownership in the United States remains badly aligned along cultural needs, not rational, nation-state driven needs.
American firearm ownership is currently driven by culture, not what the American nation or the U.S. state actually needs. Americans demand guns for several entirely cultural reasons. They believe that guns are necessary to preserve political freedom (they aren’t); that they will deter crime (they might, or they might not, we don’t really know); and that they are intricate to their lifestyle (which is true, but only for regular hunters, who are a super minority of the population).
A rationalization of gun ownership would be driven by an understanding that the United States doesn’t need any kind of militia to protect itself from foreign foes; this would mean weapons with high ammunition capacities, or with quick reloads, or with automatic or semi-automatic capacities would not be needed, since those only make sense in combat. It would recognize that guns can be used to stop crime, though exactly how and why needs to be better understood before deciding if handguns vs. shotguns vs. rifles vs. cities vs. suburbs vs. poor vs. rich are dominating any part of that conversation.
It would also recognize that certain people do live off of – and need – access to firearms, but that they are such a small minority that national policy can create exceptions for them. Since they are not going into combat, they would not need access to armaments much beyond the average hunting sportsman, nor would they need large private stocks of ammunition or weapons.
Most of all, it would require people to stop seeing guns as “fun”, but as tools which are not appropriate for most people and under most conditions.
If the reaction to Orlando is refusal to make policy changes to gun laws, then it will be the state once more subordinating policy to the irrational cultural demands of the nation.
Reason takes effort, but the effort is worth it.
Reason is slow; getting upset is fast. But one has greater value than the other. If we are to move in that direction, we must start seeing our tragedies through the prism of reason. Only then will we start to make better decisions.