Orange County Register, June 19, 2016

By RUSTY KENNEDY / Contributing columnist

The shots rang out in the darkened video clip of the mass murder in Orlando, Florida early Sunday morning. First a few shots, then rapid automatic fire that made me wince as I pictured a hundred people being shot in a matter of seconds. Mostly young, gay, Latino and black, the partygoers started the evening enjoying music and dancing at the Pulse nightclub, not knowing that many would end up dead or wounded at the hands of a mass murderer.

First, we pause to mourn the loss of these young people whose lives were just beginning and to grieve with their loved ones at this tragedy. Then we turn our minds to trying to understand what happened, why it happened, and how we can prevent it from happening again.

While the shooter’s motives are yet to be proven, it appears he targeted this club because of his hate for the LGBT community, making it a horrendous “hate crime.” Yet another sad statistic in our national tracking of bias-related crime, motivated by hatred for people based on their race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation or other immutable aspect of their being. He also reportedly pledged support for the Islamic State, painting the picture of this tragedy as an act of terror.

In war, the vilification of the enemy is the first step in dehumanizing the “other” so troops can feel justified in killing them. It is with this knowledge that we can look to the systematic vilification of the LGBT community as one of the precursors to this type of hate crime. This informs our programming and how we teach people about the differences among us, in order to prevent dehumanization and thereby reduce the likelihood of violence.

Equally dangerous after horrendous violence like this, people use scapegoating to shift blame to others. People point the finger at Muslims because the attacker claimed he was Muslim, stoking the fears we all feel after such frightening tragedies. Directing that fear by scapegoating others can stampede us into shameful acts as a country – acts we later regret:

  • The Japanese Americans were interned during World War II even as their family members fought valiantly in the 442nd Regiment, and the United States looks back with shame.
  • Nine-hundred Jews, fleeing Hitler’s Germany aboard the ship St. Louis, were denied port and sent back to the holocaust, and thousands more were denied refuge, and the United States looks back with shame.
  • Thousands of Latino laborers were deported to Mexico in Depression-era sweeps that included some Mexican Americans, and the United States looks back with shame.

Today short-sighted opportunists are stoking the same fears that have led our great country to commit these shameful acts. The blame for this mass murder is not with Muslims. Such an atrocity is strictly forbidden in the Islamic faith, as it is in Christianity, Judaism and most other faiths of the world. Suggesting measures to target Muslims for surveillance, segregation or even exclusion is misguided and in practice plays right into the hand of the terrorists.

Recently, our nation has made major strides in knocking down policies that discriminate against members of the LGBT community. Some of these advances have been met with violent rhetoric and fear mongering. Irrational concerns about how marriage equality will undermine the institution and misplaced fears of transgender individuals disrupting bathrooms in our schools are common. These fears can be exploited for political purposes only when the truth is obscured.

Today we need to stand with these Latino/a, black, transgender, gay, lesbian and bisexual young people and ensure that their voices and their experiences are not obscured or silenced.

We are a stronger community when everyone is included. But we cannot just put out the welcome mat and expect that everyone will enter. We must reach out. We must listen. We must provide a safe place for everyone, but especially for those who have been shut out before.

Join us. Join us in creating a county where everyone can live free of violence, hate and discrimination.

Rusty Kennedy is the CEO of OC Human Relations, a non-profit organization that believes all people have a right to live free from violence and discrimination based on race, religion, sexual orientation or other aspect of their being.