Outside the Orlando Regional Medical Center, where 44 of the victims of the Pulse shooting were rushed in the early hours of Sunday morning, a nurse on Tuesday took a much-needed break in the sunshine.
Mary, who asked that her last name not be used, says the shooting, in which 49 died and 53 were injured, has deeply affected her. For the first time, it has moved her to challenge her own “somewhat right-wing” views on gun ownership.
In the past, she says, she has always been skeptical about efforts to blame guns – “mere machines” – for the murderous work of humans.
For her, the impact on her hometown and her hospital “really heightened my awareness – I mean, we train for this, and we see things on a daily basis, but to see it play out at this level of destruction makes [everything] more palpable, more real.”
Other Orlando residents, shaken by the attack on the country’s tourist capital, had the opposite reaction: Gary Ellis, a waiter, says his first thought upon hearing about the shootings was to consider whether he should buy a gun for protection.
“It’s going to happen again,” he says of the violence, stopping in a local park after his shift. “I worry that this was the rain shower before the monsoon.”
The people of Orlando – from the hundreds of people lined up for hours in 92 degree heat to donate blood to the thousands that crowded the shores of Lake Eola Monday to mourn together – came together in the immediate aftermath in a show of strength and solidarity sadly familiar to residents of cities like San Bernardino, Charleston, and Boston. That feeling of community is becoming a rare and fleeting thing in a pluralized and polarized society, those interviewed said, adding that they wished it didn’t take a tragedy – that Americans could find ways to come together to do more than grieve.
While Americans interviewed across three cities expressed their sorrow and fear, their answers for how such attacks change society were as varied as the individuals. This is in many respects natural. But Americans’ increasing tendency to make every tragedy and crisis a justification for their own worldviews has fractured a sense of common purpose and community.
In this increasingly fragmented culture, the responses to the Orlando tragedy, rather than a portrait of a people unified in the wake of a tragedy, presents a mosaic of frustration and resignation, with a kernel of hope that maybe this time, somehow, things might be different.
“I don’t think [the country] is becoming hardened … to these horrible tragedies,” says Katherine Newman, a sociologist at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and co-author of the 2004 book, “Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings.” “But it’s becoming despairing of whether there’s a solution. I think there is a real frustration around the polarization that this situation has provoked.”
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A makeshift memorial, strewn with flowers and American flags, draws mourners to Orange Avenue in Orlando. The site is two blocks from where police still surround Pulse, the gay nightclub into which Omar Mateen walked with a legally obtained AR-15 assault rifle early Sunday morning.
James Walker, who has lived in the Orlando area since he was 4, came to the spot to pay his respects – and witness the aftermath of what he called “our 9/11.”
“This brings it all to my home, my city,” says Mr. Walker, a college student. “What’s the future of Orlando after this?”
The question is one that many Americans are asking not just of Orlando but the country in general. It’s a query infused with frustration – at the economy, and what appears to be the nation’s declining status in the world; at government, for not doing more to prevent such attacks from taking place; and at one another, for not being able to find common ground even in the face of fear and danger.
“When we went through the civil rights movement in the 1950s and ’60s, we had about three news outlets, so everybody was watching the same news at night and could see together and then talk the next morning about what they saw,” says Nancy Taylor, chief executive officer and senior minister of Old South Church in Boston, which is located yards away from the site of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings. “Now, people are watching whatever the heck they want to watch and whatever reinforces their own perspective, so it’s really hard to find a way to gather consensus around what is right and good and what is the common good.”
While perhaps satisfying individually, this trend toward viewing the news largely through one’s personal lens has become corrosive at times when people yearn for the country to come together to find solutions.
Virginia Rowlett, who runs a children’s store in Los Angeles, says that 3,000 miles wasn’t enough to distance her from the tragedy. Even from afar, the attack further convinced her that America is coming apart at the seams, she says. Yet she and her husband, Jason, are just as certain that succumbing to the fear is the worst possible response.
These attacks are “almost becoming normal. Like, ‘Oh, it’s another shooting,’ ” Mr. Rowlett says. “I think everyone is expecting more to come. It’s just a matter of when.”
Many of those interviewed expressed a similar feeling of dispirited resignation and concern that there is no interrupting the punctuations of mass violence in modern American life.
“I hate to say it, but I think it’s a new normal,” says Joe Medwid, a financial services officer in Boston.
“Look at the shootings in Newtown: Children – 20 children – were killed,” he says, referring to the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. “Was there a huge outcry and debate? Yes. Did anything change? Not really – at least not politically. So I think this is our new normal, which is just awful.”
Quoting the lyrics of the Roberta Flack song, “Business Goes On As Usual,” a Berklee College of Music professor in Boston says, “I don’t know what it’s going to take for America and the world to learn and break this cycle of business going on as usual.”
“I see this as no marquee event, no pivotal moment in America,” says Lawrence Watson, who is also a social activist. “It is just part and parcel of the violence.”
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For Lucas Brooks, the shooting “felt like a personal attack.” As a gay man, he has seen unity after Orlando. But he also has been struck by how unusual that is – even among the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community.
“I always have a lot of feelings about the gay community when things like this happens. Yes, we all get angry, we all come together and we fight, we protest, we do vigils. During times of nontragedy, we are not particularly warm or welcoming to each other within the community,” says Mr. Brooks, a performance artist and assistant manager at a hair salon on Tremont Street in Boston.
He points to phone apps that focus on physical appearance and discrimination based on body type or race. “I hate to say it, but it’s kind of important for things like this to bring us together. I just wish they didn’t have to be so tragic. I went to the vigil yesterday, and there were so many people and it was beautiful. But I was thinking: Why don’t all these people come together more often? Because we are still fighting a really strong fight.”
Lorri Jean, chief executive officer at the Los Angeles LGBT Center, says radicalism and easy access to guns were key factors in the massacre. But to her, the central concern is a continued assault on the LGBT community. “We don’t have to look overseas to see the bigotry that spawns this kind of violence,” she said in a phone interview the day of the attack.
To others, the problem lies in government’s inability to come together long enough to protect its people.
“The Congress and the Senate have tied President Barack Obama’s hands,” says Professor Watson at Berklee, when it comes to matters such as banning assault-style weapons like the one used in the attack. “We have rendered this president impotent.”
Still others say it’s a matter of turning the nation’s attention toward itself, instead of expending resources trying to help refugees and other non-Americans.
Edmund Pelka, an unemployed laborer who lives in Orlando, says that, as far as he’s concerned, the shooting proves what presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump said in a speech following the tragedy: That “we’re importing terrorism into the West.”
“Look at the Statue of Liberty, which says to the world: give me your tired, your hungry, your poor,” Mr. Pelka says. “Well, we need to chill out on that for a while, because right now, and especially after [the nightclub massacre], Americans are the ones who are tired, hungry, and poor.”
Others see trying to isolate one symptom as too simplistic in the face of a society facing multilayered problems.
"It was a terrorist act, but it was also an act against the gay community, but it was also an issue of mental illness in this country,” says Watson. “So we’ve got a very complicated matter here that deals with mental health, that deals with homophobia, that deals with racism, and deals with terrorism."
Several of those interviewed spoke in defense of the Muslim community and expressed hope that they would not be blamed for the act of a terrorist.
“I don’t have hate for anybody. I can’t hate somebody for their religion – that would be stupid,” says Natalija Zerojovic, a Serbian immigrant who identifies as queer.
“I feel it did not change how I feel about Islam. It confirmed, and reaffirmed, how I feel about Islamists or Islamism. I will draw that distinction – just as Christians have their radical fringe who are violent as well,” says Medwid, the financial services officer. “In fact, my big beef is the people … doing their evil under the umbrella of these peaceful religions. And we know that they are not truly the manifestations of that peaceful religion.”
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Amid the frustration, confusion, and conflicting opinions, tendrils of hope – and resolve – seep through.
“Because of magnitude of this attack, there is hope … that this will be a galvanizing incident that will lead to meaningful reform,” says Josh Lockman, a lecturer in international law and United States foreign policy at the University of Southern California.
“It’s too soon to tell what will become of this episode,” he says. “But it may very well shock the American public in ways that the frequency of shootings in this country wouldn’t normally.”
Kate McKinnon, a social activist from Tucson who is currently working at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, says that the fear that spurs people to violence and isolation can – and must be – battled back.
"We can’t really do anything about this except love each other. If we go and we try to attack the people who attacked us, it’s a never-ending cycle,” she says.
“I don’t think there’s anything normal about what’s been happening as people have been driven to the far left and the far right,” she adds. "I hope this is going to be a tipping point. This is so unacceptable and so outrageous."
Yes, the outpouring of empathy that follows tragedies like Orlando is often fleeting, says Professor Newman at UMass Amherst. But she doesn’t see the situation as hopeless as long as people are willing to turn away from hatred.
“We have to acknowledge that these are frightening times. And then you ask yourself, ‘What can I do to make a positive difference?’ ”
Some have already begun answering the question. In Orlando, Mayor Buddy Dyer said that the city will resist being “defined by the act of a hateful murderer.”
“We will be defined by how we respond and how we are responding: with love, with compassion, with unity among our city,” said Mayor Dyer, the Orlando Sentinel reports. "I don’t think we change a bit.”
Patrik Jonsson reported from Orlando, Jessica Mendoza reported from Los Angeles, and Josh Kenworthy reported from Boston.
[Editor's note: The spelling of Lorri Jean's name has been corrected.]