Killer Grief

[The author works as Director of Technology at Nerinx Hall, a Catholic high school in St. Louis, MO. He wrote this week to his colleagues on the faculty and staff.]

Dear Colleagues,

Since the exchange of emails in the aftermath of the shooting in Orlando, I’ve had a number of thoughts.

The killings are a tragedy, and the victims’ deaths are rightly mourned. At the same time, though, the public frenzy that is demanded at these now all-too-common mass shootings, is itself deadly. I call it killer grief. We are invited to enter into an orgy of intense, disproportionate public grieving that serves to prevent our asking serious questions about what happened. As a result, we never learn, and more people die.

How so? Within a few hours of the killings, President Obama said, “We know enough to say this is an act of terror and an act of hate.”   Yet, we did not at that point know enough to say that. We still don’t.

What we knew was that a militarized police SWAT team had killed Omar Mateen, the 29-year shooter. Once he was dead and permantly silenced, everyone was free to assert with unwarranted certainty what motivated the killer, what his intentions were, and what the killing meant.

What I heard from virtually no one was a call for an immediate end to the use of lethal force by police in these instances. There is no justification for it. The means exist to instantly subdue a killer without taking his life. (And, yes, I say his because these mass shootings are a male thing. The hyper-masculinity involved deserves our scrutiny.) Part of the ritual of public grieving is the praise that is heaped on the police for their heroism. Instead, the killing of the shooter can only be seen as a further tragedy and accepted only as a last resort.

Was Omar Mateen a terrorist? Glenn Greenwald writes, “This topic is so vital because this meaningless, definition-free word — Terrorism — drives so many of our political debates and policies… It’s a word that simultaneously means nothing and justifies everything.”

So, while the dead Mateen was not able to speak for himself, a complex picture of the young man began to take shape. Was he a closeted gay man who had visited The Pulse nightclub on numerous ocassions, used a gay dating app, and may have had a male lover?   His father’s denial of his son’s homosexuality (“I didn’t see any of it and I don’t believe that was the case.”) could certainly be genuine, though not unlike the reaction of so many parents of a secretly gay child. Nor would Mateen’s display of homophobia in front of his father be out of character for a closeted gay man. “We were in downtown Miami, Bayside, people were playing music. And he saw two men kissing each other in front of his wife and kid and he got very angry,” Seddique told NBC. “They were kissing each other and touching each other and he said, ‘Look at that. In front of my son they are doing that.’” Does it matter?   Yes. We may learn some of the truth, but it is necessarily much harder with Mateen dead. Obama said we know enough to label it “an act of hate.” Self-hatred? Perhaps. Does it matter? Yes.

Without delving into the contradictory pieces of evidence emerging as to whether Mateen was inspired by ISIS, we can see numerous examples of what Greenwald is talking about when he says the invocation of “terrorism” drives our political conversation and policy making. Within days of the shootings, several significant votes took place in Congress.

The House voted to approve the sale of cluster bombs to Saudi Arabia for use in its war in Yemen. The Pentagon and the Obama administration had long been pushing for the sale, and the elevated fear of terrorism provided the needed push. 119 countries have signed a treaty condemning and banning the user of cluster munitions. The US, under Republican and Democratic administrations, has resisted. Heavily populated areas that have been the target of cluster bombs remain deadly playgrounds for decades as children pick up unexploded bomblets, attracted by their brightly colored casings.

The Vatican issued a statement after Orlando, saying, “We all hope that ways may be found, as soon as possible, to effectively identify and contrast the causes of such terrible and absurd violence which so deeply upsets the desire for peace of the American people and of the whole of humanity.” Cluster bombs are the very definition of terrible and absurd violence, and as far as the “desire for peace of the American people,” the Vatican is simply providing cover for a country that doesn’t seem to give a damn about peace. Cluster bombs are just a tiny fraction of the armaments that the United States sells, donates, and provides as aid to countries around the world. In fact, US armaments account for more than 35% of the global total, amounting to $35 billion dollars in profit annually for US arms makers. And what can we make of that fact that this number has grown by 25% in the past five years?

Our killer grief for the 49 in Orlando is destroying our ability to see the death we are unleashing on the world. Like little children, we obsess over our own wounds while remaining oblivious to the death and destruction we are responsible for raining down on others. While we may be blind to it, the rest of the world is not. Last week tens of thousands protested in Okinawa against the presence of the massive US military base that remains nearly a lifetime after World War II. The US maintains more than 800 military bases around the globe.

And last week, on World Refugee Day, amid the killer grief post-Orlando could anyone hear the news from the UN High Commission on Refugees when it reported that the number of refugees and displaced people had reached an all-time high of nearly 65 million human beings? 24 people were forced to flee each minute in 2015, four times more than a decade earlier. Nearly 1 person in every 100. Imagine if two and half million people in this country were seeking food and shelter after being violently separated from their homes.

I read that Omar Mateen’s violent and abusive behavior was noticed during his freshman year of high school when his record notes that he was disciplined for “acting out.” By my calculations that would have been the fall of 2001, the beginning of the massive US bombing campaign against Afghanistan and the war that continues until today. Why do we give such short shrift to the comment that Mateen made to a young African American woman in the restroom of the nightclub during the shooting that he wanted an end to the bombing of his country? What might a young fourteen-year-old boy grown to be a twenty-nine-year old man be moved to do after spending those fifteen years watching Afghanistan’s president, our supposed ally, beg and plead publicly for an end to US nighttime home raids, assaults on wedding parties, and drone attacks—all of which have taken a huge toll on innocent human life—only to be repeatedly humiliated by US intransigence? If Dick Cheney can declare a Global War on Terror that has no geographical or temporal limits, and if Barack Obama can spend eight years expanding that war, can others fight back? Was Omar Mateen’s killing spree an act of war?

But our attention is immediately focused on The Pulse night spot and its gay patrons. We’re told that Mateen’s killing spree was a hate crime against gays, and immediately the so-called LGBTQIA+ community is enlisted in ramping up the fear that in turns demands public solidarity in the face of “senseless hatred.” Perhaps a part of the story, perhaps not. The dead Mateen is not talking.

While the death of 49 human beings is itself a tragedy, the effects of the killer grief were much more widespread and immediate. In St. Louis, the organizer of last weekend’s Pride celebration told the media that they would be working closely with the police to provide enhanced security. Having seen the display of military vehicles from all over the state in the Schnuck’s parking lot two summers ago in Ferguson, I wondered what this enhanced security might look like, and against whom it might be arrayed. So, Black Lives Matter spends two years struggling to make the tiniest crack in public indifference to police violence only to have the LGBTQIA+ community engage in the familiar knee-jerk reaction to manufactured fear.

I was talking with Rebecca, a young lesbian friend, on Saturday afternoon at the Pride gathering on South Grand. She was still visibly shaken from a shooting earlier in the day. She and her housemate were sitting in the kitchen of their Dutchtown home when a bullet whizzed through the open window and through the water bottle sitting on the table between them. It’s a neighborhood I’ve heard referred to as a war zone. As we parted ways, Rebecca said she hoped everyone would be safe downtown at the Pride celebration. I’m not interested in the hyped, pseudo threat, but much more concerned about the bullet through the water bottle that represents a neighborhood awash in poverty and all that comes with it.

So, statements of concern are pouring out of Catholic institutions after Orlando. The Vatican said, “The terrible massacre that has taken place in Orlando, with its dreadfully high number of innocent victims, has caused in Pope Francis, and in all of us, the deepest feelings of horror and condemnation, of pain and turmoil before this new manifestation of homicidal folly and senseless hatred.” And Jesuit universities were competing to issue statements of prayer and compassion, affirming the fundamental rights of human beings and lamenting the violence against our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters.

I’m singularly unimpressed.

In 1986, Josef Ratzinger, in his role as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, wrote a letter to the US Catholic Bishops on The Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons. This letter is still regularly referred to when people want to talk about “the Catholic Church’s teaching on homosexuality.” Section 10 begins, “It is deplorable that homosexual persons have been and are the object of violent malice in speech or in action. Such treatment deserves condemnation from the Church’s pastors wherever it occurs. It reveals a kind of disregard for others which endangers the most fundamental principles of a healthy society.” So far, so good. He then goes on to say, “But the proper reaction to crimes committed against homosexual persons should not be to claim that the homosexual condition is not disordered. When such a claim is made and when homosexual activity is consequently condoned, or when civil legislation is introduced to protect behavior to which no one has any conceivable right, neither the Church nor society at large should be surprised when other distorted notions and practices gain ground, and irrational and violent reactions increase.”

Does that need a translation? No, it’s pretty clear as it is. Killing gays and lesbians is bad. But if in the aftermath of Orlando, gays and lesbians should raise their voices to assert their full humanity and to demand they be allowed to live as who they are, we should not be surprised if they are attacked and killed since they are engaging in a “behavior to which no one has any conceivable right.”

That position has never been rescinded or repudiated. Catholic institutions, Nerinx included, simply dance around it. We shed crocodile tears for the Orlando victims while choosing to ignore the Church’s clearly, and oft-repeated stance that homosexuality is a pathology, no one has a right to engage in homosexual acts, and no one should be surprised if people, however misguided, use violence to put an end to it.

The Missouri Catholic Conference, the lobbying arm of the Catholic bishops of the state, has intervened regularly and agressively to thwart, repeal, and undermine the kind of civil legislation that Ratzinger referred to. Just recently, SJR 89, a piece of legislation promoted on the grounds of religious freedom sought to ensure that a baker would not be forced to provide cake to a same-sex wedding reception. It was narrowly defeated in committee, but heavily lobbied for by Missouri’s Catholic bishops. If you’re Catholic and contribute to your parish collection, you paid for it.

So, when the question is asked, “How can we make our LGBTQIA+ students feel safe at Nerinx?” I have a few simple suggestions.

First, who the heck are they? This proliferation of letters, which I hate, is the result of the ongoing suppression of peoples’ voices and the subsequent demand to “get my letter recognized.” It’s time to grow up. I thought Kinsey showed us all decades ago that there is an incredibly broad range of human experience when it comes to sexuality. Live with it. You may find that it is quite wonderful. But because of the Church’s insistence on pathologizing non-straight sexuality, life in Catholic institutions remains a ridiculously closeted experience. Nerinx is no different in that regard, evidenced by the silence imposed on non-straight students, faculty and staff. Self-imposed? Of course, in part, but not a surprise given the Church’s stance.

So, you want to make Nerinx a place where non-straight people feel comfortable? That’s easy. Simply say out loud that non-straight sexuality is not a sickness. You might even go so far as to say that you celebrate it. Say it first as an individual and then say it as an institution. That’s it. The chances of a non-straight student at Nerinx being shot by a mass killer are statistically non-existent, while the daily anguish one lives with trying to maintain sanity inside an institution that reminds you of your sickness at every turn is all too real. The Catholic Church broke communion with me on this (and other issues) a long time ago.




Andrew Wimmer lives in St. Louis, MO. He organized Stop Torture Now in 2004 to help expose the use of the Johnston County airport outside Raleigh, North Carolina by the CIA for rendition flights to Guantánamo, a work being carried on by Stop Torture Now NC. He spent ten years living as a Benedictine monk, is an ordained Catholic priest, and the father of two sons who grew to adulthood during the Global War on Terror. He invites your comments at awimmer@newcommunities.net.

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