The recent slaughter of innocents at a nightclub in Orlando has set off the now routine call for banning weapons such as the assault rifle used by the murderer that night. It is time, way, way past time for the banning of such weapons. What is far more important, and far more difficult, is to understand what it is in our culture that breeds such mentalities.
The man who brutally shot over a hundred people was, no doubt, suffering from some serious psychological problems. He has been characterized as bipolar. He indulged in drunken rages. He beat his wife. He may even have been struggling with his own sexual identity. All of that may be true. However, what is sure is that he raged against gays as a group, and he identified himself with a specific terrorist group. In other words, he saw himself as a part of what we may call a tribe, by which I mean a specified group of people who find their entire identity within that group and who, therefore, see all other groups as enemies.
Tribe, caste, clique, club — the term doesn’t matter. We have allowed a phenomenon to arise in which people identify themselves as a part of a group that somehow bestows on them meaning and status, and that consequently allows them to characterize those not in their particular group as somehow inferior and even to be opposed, belittled or even attacked. We do it with neighborhoods and clubs and churches and even, more and more, with local governments. We, in effect, create what amount to gated communities, either literally or virtually, with those outside the gate to be disparaged. “They” (someone smarter than I needs to write a book about “them”) are not rich like us, are not holy like us, are not white (or black or brown or yellow) like us, are not conservative (or liberal) like us.
And now, worst of all, they are not “American”, like us. Let’s face something straight up. Barack Obama was so violently opposed, and his presidency was so vigorously attacked, because he is an African-American. But, since the lowest common denominator did not allow people to say that, he was attacked on the grounds that he was not an American. He was, of course and indubitably, American, and we will not soon find another person so dedicated to America as he. But he wasn’t American in the Trump sense, the tribal sense, the sense that says that America must isolate itself from the rest of the world and take Trumpian advantage of all those other tribes.
Barack Obama is an American in the true sense, the original sense of that word. He is a person who defines his very meaning by the dual principles that all human beings are created equal and that all human beings are endowed by their Creator with inalienable rights. To be an American in this true sense is to recognize one’s meaning in an inexhaustible responsibility to and for every other human being, regardless of national identity or race or religion or sexual identity. To be an American is to cast aside all consideration of tribal identity and to see our national identity and meaning not as personal license or private privilege but rather as a root commitment to the fundamental rights of every human being.
When you stare at this long enough, what comes clear is that the American ideal is a rejection of self-centeredness. It is this self-centeredness that underlies all tribal commitments, and it is the failure to maintain the American ideal that has led us to the kind of tribalism that allows bigotry and hatred to dominate our decisions. We have, I submit, gradually lost our commitment to that ideal, and so have lost our own meaningfulness and our ability to give meaning to others. Lacking that meaning, people choose a tribe instead. Lacking the recognition of their fundamental identity, kids join gangs and people like the Orlando murderer joins a tribe of haters.
So, get rid of AR-15’s, sure. Track suspicious characters, of course. Identify the mentally disturbed, no doubt. Far, far more important, honor the inherent rights of every human being. Communities are fine. Gates are not.