The Orlando Bloodbath and the Illiberal Mind
The horrifying events at the Pulse bar in Orlando, Florida, the worst mass shooting in American history, illustrate what is meant by the term terrorism. It is violence designed to shake our sense of security and safety, to instill fear, to remind us how fragile is the very existence of what we call civilization. One moment, people are dancing and enjoying the music. The next they are covered with blood amidst unspeakable carnage, and wondering when the bullets are going to tear through their own flesh.
A nightclub—a conspicuous symbol of commercial ebullience and progressive cultural creativity—becomes a war zone in the blink of an eye, and why? There is no final answer to such a gigantic question, but there are strong suggestions based on the identity of the killer and recent experiences with Islamic extremism. It stems from intolerance, leading to seething hatred, resulting in violence, leaving only devastation and fear in its wake. One corrupt heart, driven to action through profound malice, turns a dance club into a killing field.
No Political Solution
It is political season, so of course the tragedy will have implications for the direction of politics. Islamophobia gets a boost, which helps the cause of religious intolerance and nativism, even though the killer was an American citizen and in no way represents the views of a billion and a half peaceful and faithful Muslims struggling for a better life.
Two nights earlier, beloved youtube star Christina Grimmie was shot dead by a man having no motivations related to Islam. Fear drives people to seek political solutions, so the details of the case in question are not likely to matter. State control over our lives and property will undoubtedly follow this catastrophe just as they did after 9-11.
And yet there are no political solutions, at least none readily at hand. Yes, the radicalization of some sectors of Islam might never have taken their present course had the U.S. not made egregious foreign-policy blunders that incited the drive for vengeance among millions. Looking back over the decades, back to the 1980s when the most extreme ideologies received U.S. encouragement from the U.S. as a Cold War measure, all the way to the destabilization of Iraq, Syria, and Libya, one sees how the violence of war has fed the violence of terrorism in repeating cycles.
Still, no one can say for sure that absent such blunders, someone like the Orlando shooter, Omar Mateen, would not come into existence. Society is always threatened by individuals with corrupt hearts and the malicious intent to purify the world of sin. We try to protect ourselves. Security systems respond by becoming ever better at what they are supposed to do. The horror has already re-started the debate between gun rights and gun control (however: by law, that bar was a gun-free zone, meaning that people could not protect themselves or stop others who are intent on killing). And yet, in the end, there is no system of politics and no system of security capable of ending all such threats to human well being.
Toleration as a Virtue
The answer lies with the conversion of the human heart.
Where does this begin?
Given that the driving force here is related to religion, we can turn to the very origins of liberalism itself. It was once believed that society, in order to function properly, required full agreement on matters of faith. But after centuries of warfare amounting to nothing, a new norm emerged, some half a millennium ago, which can best be summarized in the term toleration.
The insight was that it is not necessary for people to agree in order that they find value in each other and get along. A society can cohere even in the presence of profound religious disagreement. We all have a greater stake in peace with each other than any of us do in winning some religious struggle. As 19th century liberal cleric John Henry Newman put it, “Learn to do thy part and leave the rest to Heaven.”
This was the profound insight, and it led to a new enlightenment on a range of issues beyond religion: free speech, free press, free trade, freedom of association. The insight concerning toleration planted a seed that led to a new realization of how humanity can enjoy progress. Voltaire’s Treatise on Toleration, which summed up the case, appeared a mere twenty-one years before Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. Their core idea was the same: we have more to gain from toleration, exchange, and freedom than we have from vanquishing the foe from the earth.
So it should be no surprise that the attempt to revert that progress and bring back a new age of tribal warfare would begin by questioning the core insight of religious liberty. Instead it seeks to purify the world of heresy and save souls through violence, if not by the state then by individual action. It is a premodern manner of thinking, one that seeks to end the lives of those who use freedom in ways that contradicts its own views of what is right and proper.