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‘DifCon’ series tackles Orlando nightclub mass shooting

Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson visits Pulse Nightclub on Orlando on Sept. 12, the three-month anniversary of the shooting that left 49 people dead. Official DHS photo: Jetta Disco

By GROVE POTTER

Published October 26, 2016

“To me it’s about the means — the equipment to kill.”
Carole Emberton, associate professor
Department of History

A little more than four months ago, an American man of Afghan heritage slaughtered 49 people in a gay nightclub in Orlando and wounded 53 others in the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history. Officials have labeled it a terrorist attack and a hate crime.

The 29-year-old perpetrator, Omar Mateen, was killed by Orlando police after a three-hour standoff at the Pulse nightclub, a bar that Mateen was known to have frequented. Although acquaintances said they thought Mateen was gay, investigators said they found no evidence of a gay life, secret or public, on his phone or computer.

In a 911 call after he began shooting on June 12, Mateen swore allegiance to the leader of ISIL, and claimed the attack was “triggered” by the killing of an American in Iraq. He later told a negotiator he was carrying out the attack because of American bombing in Iraq and Syria.

But how does a man born in Hyde Park, N.Y., to parents from Afghanistan become the most heinous mass shooter in U.S. history? And what does the shooting — and the many others that occur with regularity across the U.S. — say about us?

Those and other questions raised by the shooting were tackled on Tuesday during “Tragedy in Orlando,” the second DifCon discussion of the week held in the Intercultural and Diversity Center.

James Bowman, an international student adviser, said that following the Orlando massacre, many UB students in the LBGT community told him they did not feel safe.

Carole Emberton, an associate professor of history, took issue with the Orlando tragedy being labeled the “worst mass shooting in U.S. history.” She said the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890 and the Tulsa massacre in 1921 both had greater casualties. But what was common among all three: the access to powerful weapons.

“To me it’s about the means — the equipment to kill,” Emberton said. At Wounded Knee, the Army was using its first Gatling gun, in Tulsa the white population was heavily armed, and in Orlando, the shooter had legally purchased high-powered weapons days before the shooting.

And yet there is an unwillingness to talk about access to weapons in the U.S., she said. “Look at Australia and Britain. These things don’t happen on this scale.”

Teresa Miller, vice provost for equity and inclusion, and organizer of the DifCon series, said many Americans are living in fear of violence due to the prevalence of guns. “Why are we sharing the Syrian experience” of living in a war-torn country? she asked.

How the victims were labeled in the media drew much comment. Bowman said at first they were called members of the LGBT community, but soon those identifiers were dropped in what he called “erasure” of their identities. Adrian Juarez, an assistant professor of nursing, also noted that as the shooter was labeled a terrorist, the identifying labels of the victims were dropped and they were identified simply as Americans.

Kafuli Agbemenu, a research assistant professor of nursing, said her students are focused on clinical issues and do not feel the need to focus on social issues. Provost Charles Zukoski said the same is true for engineering students, who also are intensely focused on their disciplines.

“I wonder how far I can go talking about social issues in my teaching,” Agbemenu said.

Chitra Rajan, associate vice president for research advancement, wondered “what is the underlying cause of the breakdown, of the failure of society?... Are these inevitable consequences of global change? Who knows?”

Bowman said that while investigators may wonder about the psychology of the shooter, hateful comments at a gay pride parade can feed irrational thinking. “How can we allow this mindset to continue?” he asked. “Sometimes this hate is hate because it comes from language we allow to happen.”

One means of battling that could be the inclusion of general education courses in a school’s requirements, Emberton said.

“It’s so important that students are exposed to these questions; that they have the opportunity to work them out in a relatively safe environment,” she said.

“DifCon: Our Cities. Our Issues” is sponsored by the Office of the Vice Provost for Equity and Inclusion and the Intercultural & Diversity Center. The discussion series continues all week.