Doctors were pleading for blood donations and desperate families were still trying to locate their loved ones. But already the political potency of the tragedy began to rise up, inescapably, like a harsh light over the horizon.
In the many ideological battles raging in our turbulent, confused world, the massacre in a gay nightclub in an American city looked like it would hand a victory to one side and a defeat to another; it would provide evidence, empirical evidence, to bolster certain points of view about some of the fiercest social disagreements in our fast-changing world. But which?
And then something happened. Instead of the usual relatively clear-cut rundown of evidence, the facts in this case seemed to step all over the battle lines. And Americans now find themselves facing a moment where the sanest reaction in the face of insanity — especially in a particularly ugly political season — is to do the unthinkable: reach for common ground.
The events of the day took us on a tour of this struggle — and showed why it must draw us, ineluctably, together.
From the early hours everyone kept a close eye on the details. Would this turn out to be a shooting by a Muslim extremist motivated, as so many others before, by a vile ideology of anti-Western, anti-modern tenets, and thus fuel arguments over foreign and domestic policy regarding immigration, the Middle East and radicalism?
Would it become another touchstone for debating the teachings of Islam, with the discussion moving across the line from reasonable debate to blunt prejudice and then back over that other line that says the subject cannot be broached at all?
Or would this turn out to be another tragedy with that rough texture that has become much too familiar in America: a seemingly random killing, a "mass casualty shooting," with no connection to Islam or geopolitics; perhaps another case of a mentally ill individual with easy access to deadly weapons?
Or maybe this would be one of those "domestic terrorism" cases, linked to political hot button issues, disagreements about morality or religion, killings in the name of another brand of fundamentalism?
Would it trigger a discussion about what is a hate crime and what is terrorism when the killer is an American who targets members of a particular minority?
Would the Monday TV news shows book guests to talk about ISIS, or about homophobia or LGBT acceptance?
The question was not only being asked in America. Overseas the media asked "Homophobia or Terrorism?"-
- as if the choice were binary; as if the two were mutually exclusive, which, as we know all too well, is quite contrary to facts. Homophobia and terrorism can be conjoined twins.
As the tally of horror ticked up, making the mass shooting at the Pulse club in Orlando the deadliest in U.S. history, the question of the perpetrator and his motives seemed to become even more important, the stakes higher. In the midst of a hyperpolarized U.S. political season, the stakes grew even greater. There were points to score, costs to pay.
If this had turned out to have been a random shooting without an ideology behind it, gun control advocates could count it as evidence in favor of their preferred argument; another grim example of how urgent it is to stop the proliferation of firearms in America.
And given that the victims were at a gay club, it would have made it a clear-cut case in favor of progressive politics. Sen. Bernie Sanders, who has not been a particularly fervent advocate of gun control, brought up the need for new gun laws during an appearance on "Meet the Press."
And in Texas, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick tweeted (and then deleted)
a bible verse "reap what you sow," which some took as outrageous affront to the gay victims, although Patrick's campaign said it had been "previously scheduled."
But the FBI and others said the killer, Omar Mateen, had suspected links with Islamic extremists.
Then his father said
his son was angry after seeing two men kissing.
It turns out that he may have been motivated by both homophobia and Islamic radicalism. That should not come as a surprise. We have seen fundamentalist Islamic governments execute young gay men, and terrorist groups have done it in their own gruesome way.
Terrorism or homophobia? The answer is yes. Both.
Perhaps the Orlando massacre can indeed help us accept some common ground.
Can we agree that killing human beings is morally reprehensible and draw a circle of humanity that leaves out those who reject that basic notion? Vast majorities of people of all religions would accept that.
Can we agree that there are Islamic extremists killing people, Muslims, Christians, Jews, gays and others, and that letting them have unfettered access to weapons in the United States is a dangerous proposition?
Maybe it's too much to expect that the killings in Orlando would help us find this common ground. But in a time when the world feels like it's becoming unmoored, it's worth a try.