Editor’s note: As I read and learn about the people who died in Orlando, they sound like people I would have liked to have known, to go out dancing with, to talk about politics and news and life with. But if life unfolded as planned, I most likely would never have known any of their names. They would have led privately remarkable lives, the way almost all of us do – significant to our friends and family members, but entirely unknown to people outside those circles.If the public learns our names, it likely means we’re known for the way we died, rather than the way we lived.
While the shooter’s story is what policymakers talk about, it’s the people whose stories weren’t of anguish and hate, but of success and struggle and ordinary stages of living – going to school, starting a business, vacationing in Florida – who I keep pausing to remember.
I didn’t know any of them personally, but the LGBTQ community is tight-knit enough that people seemingly everywhere – including in Monterey County – knew victims of the shooting.
The Weekly’s business development director, Keely Richter, knew Kimberly Morris, who went by KJ, when she managed the Smith College Campus Center in Northampton, Mass. Everyone on campus had a crush on KJ, Richter says. She remembers a tall, strong woman – “and a hell of a drag king.”
“Her smile and her swagger introduced me to self confidence that I, as a shy kid from a small town, could never have imagined,” Richter adds.
When President Barack Obama spoke in Orlando June 16, he relaid details and memories of people like Morris who died in the shooting. He spoke about the need for compassion and respect among the living. A transcript of Obama’s remarks, edited for length, follows.
Four days ago, this community was shaken by an evil and hateful act. Today, we are reminded of what is good. That there is compassion, empathy and decency, and most of all, there is love. That’s the Orlando we’ve seen in recent days. And that is the America we have seen.
This afternoon, the vice president and I had the opportunity to meet with many of the families here. As you might imagine, their grief is beyond description. Through their pain and through their tears, they told us about the joy that their loved ones had brought to their lives. They talked about their sons or their daughters – so many young people, in their 20s and 30s; so many students who were focused on the future.
These families could be our families. In fact, they are our family – they’re part of the American family. We also owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to all the doctors, all the nurses who have worked day and night to treat the injured, save lives and prevent even more anguish. As one of the doctors here said, “After the worst of humanity reared its ugly head, the best of humanity came roaring back.”
We’re all going to have to work together at every level of government, across political lines, to do more to stop killers who want to terrorize us. We will continue to be relentless against terrorist groups like ISIL and al Qaeda. We are going to destroy them. We are going to disrupt their networks, and their financing, and the flow of fighters in and out of war theaters.
We’re going to do all that. Our resolve is clear. But given the fact that the last two terrorist attacks on our soil – Orlando and San Bernardino – were homegrown, carried out it appears not by external plotters, not by vast networks or sophisticated cells, but by deranged individuals warped by the hateful propaganda they had seen.
Those who were killed and injured here were gunned down by a single killer with a powerful assault weapon. Unfortunately, our politics have conspired to make it as easy as possible for a terrorist or just a disturbed individual like those in Aurora and Newtown to buy extraordinarily powerful weapons – and they can do so legally.
Today, once again, as has been true too many times before, I held and hugged grieving family members and parents, and they asked, Why does this keep happening? They don’t care about the politics. Neither do I. Neither does Joe. And neither should any parent out there who’s thinking about their kids being not in the wrong place, but in places where kids are supposed to be.
Here in Orlando, we are reminded not only of our obligations as a country to be resolute against terrorists, we are reminded not only of the need for us to implement smarter policies to prevent mass shootings, we’re also reminded of what unites us as Americans, and that what unites us is far stronger than the hate and terror of those who target us.
For so many people here who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, the Pulse nightclub has always been a safe haven, a place to sing and dance, and most importantly, to be who you truly are. Sunday morning, that sanctuary was violated in the worst way imaginable. Whatever the motivations of the killer, this was an act of terrorism but it was also an act of hate. This was an attack on the LGBT community. Americans were targeted because we’re a country that has learned to welcome everyone, no matter who you are or who you love. And hatred toward people because of sexual orientation, regardless of where it comes from, is a betrayal of what’s best in us.
Here in Orlando, in the men and women taken from us, and in those who loved them, we see some of the true character of this country – the best of humanity coming roaring back; the love and the compassion and the fierce resolve that will carry us not just through this atrocity, but through whatever difficult times may confront us.
It’s our pluralism and our respect for each other – including a young man who said to a friend, he was “super proud” to be Latino. It’s our love of country – the patriotism of an Army reservist who was known as “an amazing officer.” It’s our unity – the outpouring of love that so many across our country have shown to our fellow Americans who are LGBT, a display of solidarity that might have been unimaginable even a few years ago.
Out of this darkest of moments, that gives us hope – seeing people reflect, seeing people’s best instincts come out, maybe in some cases, minds and hearts change. It is our strength and our resilience – the same determination of a man who died here who traveled the world, mindful of the risks as a gay man, but who spoke for us all when he said, “We cannot be afraid… we are not going to be afraid.”
May we all find that same strength in our own lives. May we all find that same wisdom in how we treat one another.