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When Forgetting Is the Proper Response to Terrorism

Monika Graff/Getty

Before the day was out, even before the media flipped from covering the massacre at Pulse, a gay club in Orlando, to covering the impact it would have on the presidential campaign, you began to see two competing American impulses jostle for position over the murders. On the one hand, you heard what the Canadian magazine MacLean’s once called the “carefully choreographed ritual” of the American reaction to mass shootings; on the other hand, the predictably hyperbolic American reaction to terrorism. President Barack Obama led the former, while Donald Trump led the latter with a self-congratulatory reminder that he’d called for a ban on Muslim immigration, even though the Orlando shooter was not an immigrant.

The MacLean’s article was written in December of last year following the last nationally covered mass shooting, in San Bernardino, another awful massacre after which it was swiftly (in some corners, almost gleefully) revealed that the shooters had “pledged allegiance” to ISIS. Terrorism may be much realer than the devil, but these details have a darkly humorous hint of a more innocent time’s Satanic panics, the now-discredited notion that ritual child abuse or suburban suicide clusters or school shootings were the psychic and ideological outcome of death metal and Dungeons & Dragons and violent video games. That sad, disturbed, untethered, ill, and unsound people would choose to link themselves with some or other grandiose death cult hardly indicates that our society has been penetrated at the deepest levels by a conspiracy of evil. Omar Mateen wasn’t in ISIS, but he did think ISIS was pretty fucking cool. Unfortunately, Americans love to take madmen at their word.

Politicians made the usual show of desultory sorrow before hopping on precisely the hobbyhorses they habitually ride, and plenty of us ordinary people followed suit. “Imagine your [timeline] today if the white guy in CA had carried out his attack & the Muslim guy in FL had been prevented,” Matt Barganier, who tweets under the pseudonym @bitteranagram, proposed. “What % of ppl you follow, left & right, would have said almost the opposite of what they said today?” Hard to disagree: the nominal left would’ve been banging on about rightwing political extremism; the supposed right would’ve told us that a man’s religion and rambling Facebook politics actually tell us nothing about religion or politics.

All sides did agree that we must stand vigilant guard against the inevitable, which is roughly that the lives lost in Orlando will swiftly fade into the dull background hum of violence in America, while we all return to important issues like the size of Donald Trump’s penis and the location of Hillary Clinton’s email server. It’s utterly banal to say we must not politicize the killings; of course we must politicize them. But this is also the crassly amoral justification for shoehorning them into a presidential campaign, the least actually political thing in America, as if we need to have an army of ghoulish candidate interlocutors blather about Orlando for the next five months lest we forget it ever happened.

The terrible irony is that a degree of mournful forgetfulness is precisely the proper attitude in the face of terror, far better and healthier than invading some other fractured Middle-Eastern country or rounding up the members of a religious minority. A certain strand of American liberalism likes to scoff at the “thoughts and prayers” that go out on official channels after every tragedy. “We didn’t elect you to pray,” goes the common refrain. In fact, feeling and prayer for the specific victims is a human and humane response and perhaps the least bad thing officials can do. Not every death requires an immediate policy paper. I do happen to believe that a greater degree of gun control would mitigate the insane prevalence of gun violence in America, but it is no panacea. The attackers in Paris also acquired and used guns, despite living in countries with far stricter gun control laws.  

The proper response to terror is not to be terrorized, and that means taking a coolly actuarial position on attacks: they will be relatively rare, but that they cannot be stopped entirely by more police, metal detectors, intelligence sharing, vague strength, gun registries, invasions, drone strikes, or God forbid, internment camps and deportations. It’s no admission of defeat to admit that cars crash, houses burn, some people get cancer, hurricanes make landfall. Tomorrow, you could be hit by a bus. We live every day on the precipice of death. Reasonable caution is advisable; hysteria is not. The faux manly toughness that sells everything from the AR-15 to the Donald Trump candidacy is really a form of terrible cowardice, a surrender of reason to fear, a failure to do the one thing that the killers, whatever their unknowable hatreds, do not want the living to do: carry on with their lives.

I’ve been moved to see so many queer people reject our newly assigned role as one more justification for war and repression. Gay people, having lived with pogroms, hatred, discrimination, and epidemic disease for all these years know this better than anyone. “Please Don’t Stop The Music,” read a representative headline in The Nation. After all, if AIDS and Ronald Reagan couldn’t kill us, we’re hardly going to live in fear of terrorist wannabes with too-easy access to guns.

There will be more killing. As a culture, our duty is to decide if, at each new incident, we again crank the ratchet toward more surveillance, more jails, more police, more war, and more fear, or if instead, we’ll do the killers the great disservice of forgetting their faces and forgetting their names and failing to let our politicians draft either into their appeals to our own worst impulses.