Perhaps the saddest thing about the shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida is that it is not unprecedented. The target, as it has been before and will be again, was modern Western society, and modern liberal tolerance. The victims were sentenced to death for the crime of enjoying life.
As of Sunday afternoon, much was still unknown about the attacker. But what is known fits an all too familiar M.O.: He seems to have been a lone wolf, the prototypical unmoored 21st century terrorist, motivated by a mix of fuzzy religious ideology and personal demons. He was under surveillance a few years ago, the FBI said on Sunday, but there was not enough evidence to detain him. It is being widely reported that, just prior to the attacks, he made a 911 call pledging allegiance to the so-called Islamic State, but he appears to have been largely or entirely self-radicalized. IS did not send him; he was born in America. He became infected with a strain of an epidemic that is in the air.
In last year's Paris attacks, the main target was a nightclub, the Bataclan. People were killed because they were out dancing to music. In Orlando, they appear to have been murdered because they were dancing while gay. The perpetrator's father says his son recently became enraged by the sight of two men kissing.
Our society's strength, its foundational principle, is tolerance. Diversity is a fact, but tolerance is an everyday act. It is the act of coming face to face with something you may find disagreeable or uncomfortable – a woman in a veil, a man wearing a yarmulke, two people of the same sex holding hands – and recognizing that it's just not up to you to decide how others should live their lives. In the liberal West, that statement is now banal; in many other times and places, it is radical and heretical.
If there is a clash of civilizations and mindsets, this is it. The normalcy of our lives, and our everyday acceptance and enjoyment of difference, is what the Paris and Orlando attackers sought to shatter. But our society is stronger than lone men with guns and resentments. They can kill people, but they cannot kill our ideals.