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'Hatred is the vice of narrow souls'

Missoula, Montana, is roughly 2,600 miles away from Orlando, Florida. Yet when a shooter opened fire inside a gay nightclub last Sunday, killing 49 people and wounding at least 53 more, the tragedy of America’s worst mass shooting in modern memory felt as close as though it had happened right here in western Montana.

At first, it was the sheer horror of the incident, along with profound sympathy, that drove Montanans throughout the state to gather at vigils held in honor of the victims. Such vigils were held in Missoula, Bozeman, Billings, Helena, Great Falls and Kalispell, among others. Now, as the victims’ names and stories are shared and grieved nationwide, the initial shock and sorrow are giving way to frustration, anger and a determination to make meaningful changes to prevent the next mass shooting.

Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, for one, tweeted “I will be meeting with the NRA, who has endorsed me, about not allowing people on the terrorist watch list, or the no fly list, to buy guns,” and said Muslims should be banned from immigrating to the United States.

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton said she wouldn’t shy from labeling a terrorist attack an act of “radical Islamism,” and added, “We did have an assault weapons ban for 10 years. I think it should be reinstated."

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, another Democratic presidential candidate, also called for a ban on assault weapons and demanded that ISIS be destroyed.

Montana’s congressional delegates also offered a range of responses to the Orlando shooting. Sen. Jon Tester, a member of the Homeland Security Committee, called for the Senate to move past its differences and “come together to strengthen our national security.”

On that note, Sen. Steve Daines applauded the passage of the National Defense Authorization Act, which passed on a bipartisan vote of 85-13. “The tragedy in Orlando was another act of war on our homeland – and it is critical we provide our military the tools to destroy our enemies overseas and strengthen our security at home,” he said in a prepared statement.

Rep. Ryan Zinke, meanwhile, said America needs to change course: “Radical Islamic terrorism is as much a war within Islam as it is a war against the West, and it will take a global coalition with Middle Eastern stakeholders and American leadership to stop it at its source. We must also do more here at home to stop individuals who have been radicalized before they act.”

Coincidentally, a Missoula city council committee this week took up a scheduled discussion on requiring background checks on gun sales and transfers – an issue that garnered heated debate when it was launched last year. The proposal, which includes exemptions as well as fines for violations, was returned to the Missoula City Council’s Public Health and Safety Committee for further revision.

While the committee’s meeting on the proposed ordinance was not a result of the shooting in Orlando, it nevertheless came at an opportune time, as many Missoulians questioned whether gun regulations could have stopped 29-year-old Omar Mateen, An American-born Florida man who had pledged allegiance to ISIS and who was interviewed by the FBI in 2013 and 2014, from obtaining the AR-15 and pistol he used to carry out his attack at the Pulse club.

It also presents a new opportunity for some critical self-reflection as a community.

In Missoula we can debate what role to play in alleviating the refugee crisis overseas; how best to extend legal protections to gay, lesbian and transgender residents; and whether to enact new restrictions on firearms. These discussions can and should be held openly, without fear of personal attacks or physical threats.

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Far too often lately, however, those leading these important community discussions have been met with the worst kind of destructive criticism. Opponents of anti-refugee resettlement efforts were rightly upset at being labeled haters and Islamophobes. Mary Poole, who spearheaded Soft Landing Missoula’s efforts to open an International Rescue Committee office locally, has been called as bad or worse.

Similarly, members of city council sponsoring the background checks proposal have been on the receiving end of insults and intimidation.

That’s not the way we should do things. Especially in light of the most recent, but certainly not the last, mass shooting that may have been driven by Islamic extremism, mental illness, homophobia or a dozen other possible motives.

Those prone to violence will seize on such motives to cause further division and strife and bend others to their way of thinking. As individuals and collectively, we must recognize that there are other, better responses to this tragedy. There are as many different solutions to hatred and violence as we can imagine, and public comment and debate is a necessary part of determining which of these solutions to pursue.

But if we have learned one thing from the horrific murders in Orlando, one thing on which we can all agree, let it be this: hatred has no place here – not in America, not in Missoula, not in our home. On this one thing at least, let us be united.

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Missoulian editorial board: Publisher Mark Heintzelman and Opinion Editor Tyler Christensen.

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