Omar Mateen’s murder of forty-nine people in Orlando has been called a tragedy—“the Orlando tragedy,” as we hear so often. The word is apt only in the mistaken sense in which we use it now. “Tragedy” has become the word we use when we’re at a loss. When we describe the slaughter of twenty children by Adam Lanza at Sandy Hook Elementary School as a “tragedy,” what we mean is that that terrible event was meaningless. “Tragedy” has come to denote inexplicable evil.
This is a misuse of the term, one that enables our evasions of political reality. It is exactly the opposite of “tragedy” in its classical sense. In his Poetics, Aristotle says that an action is “tragic” when it unfolds in a way that causes the protagonist to suffer, not by happenstance, but in accord with an intrinsic logic. The suffering of the tragic protagonist is fitting. The upshot is catharsis, a release of strong feeling that restores emotional equilibrium. An event is classically “tragic,” then, when suffering is meaningful. We resonate to suffering cathartically when we sense its meaning—and sense that we are implicated in it.
But when we apply “tragedy” to mass murder, our sense of the word is exactly the opposite of Aristotle’s. We could always describe these events as “crimes”; in a legal sense, that’s what they obviously are. But “crime” seems too modest a word, and politicians, especially, don’t want to be seen as downplaying mass murder. To convey the magnitude of the event—and their empathy for the victims, as leadership must these days—they use the grandest word for “suffering” they can think of. It happens to be “tragedy.” They intend to signal that they are empathetic—overwhelmingly so. The evil is inexplicable, incomprehensible, but the suffering is real and in some way must be addressed. “Tragedy” is what we say when we wish to emote and say nothing.
And yet, very often, these events are comprehensible. As for Orlando, we all know that Omar Mateen’s rampage fits a pattern—that of Charlie Hebdo, Paris, Brussels, and San Bernardino most recently in the West, and countless others in the past and continuing throughout the Middle East. But this pattern points to descriptions and explanations that are unpalatable, because they put demands on our leaders and us. So politicians and pundits default to a therapeutic stance. They call the slaughter a “tragedy,” in order to avoid giving it meaning.
What is its meaning? The Orlando slaughter was not, primarily, an attack on gays, as liberal pundits and politicians now insist. They favor that interpretation, not only because it gives them leverage in our culture wars, but because it provides an easy, predictable, and unthreatening horizon of meaning. “Mass murder of gays, just like the last incident in_______”: You can’t fill in that blank, which is why this way of thinking about Orlando reassures. It does not involve thinking about real threats, and it does not require real leadership to meet those threats.
No, the slaughter in Orlando was an attack on our society. All of us who remain loyal to a country that allows for gay nightclubs were its targets.
Many commentators, including President Obama, seem unable to grasp this basic feeling of solidarity when we’re under attack. In a particularly thick-headed commentary in the Washington Post last fall, Andrew Shaver appealed to psychology to explain why we are much more agitated by terrorist attacks than by the ever-present dangers of dying in a car wreck or from cancer. Shaver’s analysis missed the point. I am upset about Orlando because I am aware that Mateen’s killing spree was part of a larger battle plan. That plan has been clearly articulated by an implacable enemy that will kill as many Americans as necessary in order to secure dominion over us. I don’t “fear” dying in a terrorist attack. I am agitated by Orlando and San Bernardino because I am patriotic and recognize that an attack on my fellow citizens is an attack on all of us.
This naturally suggests that we should speak of the “Orlando terrorist attack,” or even of an “act of war” in Orlando, rather than of “the Orlando tragedy.” But this way of talking would suggest that America has enemies, which is a prospect we don’t like to contemplate.
As Americans, we tend to think of ourselves as essentially peaceful and benevolent. We are the “universal nation,” which means assuming that the whole world is allied (at least implicitly) with our causes of freedom, democracy, and prosperity. For obvious historical reasons, an Israeli or a Pole has no difficulty recognizing the reality of deadly hostility to his nation. By contrast, Americans are often willfully blind. We don’t want to admit that we are a particular country with a particular culture that seeks to dominate the world—and thus generates push-back, including violent efforts by a very different culture to assert its global dominance.
Still further, our political leaders (and many citizens) find it spiritually exhausting to consider the possibility of war, whether a conventional one or one fought in the shadows. They prefer to be impartial spokesmen for peace and justice. War requires the moral risk of venturing loyalty, the spiritual gamble that killing and defeating our enemies will advance the cause of justice. It is telling that since World War II, America has fought only one war with the intention of winning, and that war, Iraq, is the one that, though won, is considered a grave failure.
Finally, there is the anxiety about nationalism and xenophobia. Our leaders don’t want us to feel too much solidarity with the victims in Orlando. They seem to expect that we’ll end up goose-stepping down the avenues, or forming vigilante gangs to rampage through Muslim neighborhoods. If our leaders seriously fear this, they should exert themselves to purify our patriotism. They would rather change the subject.
And so our leaders prefer “tragedy.” It elevates the status of those killed while defusing all meaning. Our leaders acknowledge the suffering and loss felt by the families and friends of the dead, while evading unsettling implications and difficult political realities.
Abraham Lincoln did not describe the shots fired on Fort Sumter as “tragic.” Franklin Roosevelt did not refer to Pearl Harbor as a “tragedy.” As recently as September 11, 2001, we did not take refuge in that empty notion. That we do so now says something about our national decadence—a therapeutic decadence, which evades the hard responsibilities of political leadership.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.