Sarah Kendzior is a St. Louis-based commentator who writes about politics, the economy and media.
On June 3, President Barack Obama complained at a PBS NewsHour forum about the difficulty of passing gun-control legislation.
"We've got people we know have been on ISIL websites living here in the United States – U.S. citizens," he said in exasperation. "We're allowed to put them on the no-fly list when it comes to airlines, but because of the National Rifle Association, I cannot prohibit them from buying a gun."
On Sunday, Omar Mateen, a U.S. citizen known by the FBI to be an Islamic State sympathizer, used an AR-15 rifle to murder 49 people at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla. That day, Mr. Obama gave a speech proclaiming the shooting "an act of terror and an act of hate."
He looked exhausted. He should be. He has given this speech 15 times.
Over Mr. Obama's eight years in office, the United States has grown more diverse, with a rapidly changing population that includes a large influx of Latino and Asian immigrants. It has also become a more tolerant nation – in legal terms, at least – for LGBT Americans. Gay marriage is permitted. Transgender rights, rarely discussed in public a decade ago, have become a popular cause.
But resistance to these changes has increased political fractiousness and bigotry, leading to a country polarized about issues such as where people can go to the bathroom or a presidential candidate backed by the Ku Klux Klan. Extremism has become mainstream, with election campaigns exposing and exacerbating racial divides. There is little that seems to hold Americans together – until a mass shooting tears us apart.
We know the script: the breaking news of the first shots, the rise of the body count, the revelation of the shooter's identity, the grief and rage, the thoughts and prayers, the knowledge that nothing will change. That the script is known only makes it more painful, with every tragedy reviving past anguish and warning of future loss. American geography is carved in pain. Small towns have become shorthand for shootings – Newtown, Conn.; Littleton, Colo. No region is safe or spared.
No population is safe either – not the Sikhs murdered in their temple in Wisconsin in 2012, nor the black churchgoers gathered in South Carolina in 2015, nor the moviegoers in Colorado in 2012, nor the college students in Oregon in 2015 and California in 2014, not the office workers in California in 2015, nor even the elementary school children in Connecticut in 2012.
America is a diverse nation, politicians announce proudly. Yes, diverse in our death toll – and united in our frustration and fear.
Gun culture is debated most after mass carnage. But it permeates our everyday routine, especially for those of us who live in the most violent states. My state, Missouri, leads the country in shootings by toddlers. The streets of my city, St. Louis, are lined with teddy bears tied to trees – makeshift memorials for shooting victims. "Rolling gun battle" is St. Louis vernacular for people shooting at each other from cars on a highway. One candidate for governor, Eric Greitens, fired an assault rifle into an empty field in a TV ad to appeal to voters. This is normal life.
Every now and then, as in Orlando, a tragedy shocks us out of our day-to-day complacency into a national conversation.
In a heated political environment, the lines between protection and persecution blur. The shooters, almost always young men, say they feel persecuted – because of women, because of non-white Americans, because of gays. Little is known about Omar Mateen's beliefs other than the fact he was repulsed recently at the sight of two men kissing. He allegedly was a member of the Islamic State, but he did his crime the American way: with a gun, indiscriminately, targeting a marginalized group of people in a public space – in this case, a predominantly Latino LGBT community.
That shooters often target marginalized groups echoes the bigoted rhetoric of the election. The Orlando shooting presents politicians such as Donald Trump with a conundrum: The shooter is Muslim, the victims Latinos at a gay club – how to demonize for the greatest gain? This is what our right-wing politicians are pondering as Americans weep and wait for the next attack.
Our President hangs his head while other politicians exploit our pain. Briefly, our diverse nation unites – as targets and as pawns.