To a very great extent, this past week has been dominated by discussions of the Orlando nightclub shooting. When the scale of that attack became clear, media outlets nearly universally declared that it was the “worst massacre in American history.” Very quickly, historians, among others, responded by pointing to many events in American history in which more people were killed: the Tulsa Race Riot, Wounded Knee, the bombing of the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City, the Happy Land fire in the Bronx, and many more. Somewhat more quietly there has been a pushback against these pieces online. “When comparing tragedies, nobody wins,” blogged the gay, Native American artist Fox Spears.
There is, on the face of it, something unseemly about counting bodies and giving some event the title of “most deadly” or “worst.” But as with any event in history, part of understanding the Orlando shooting necessarily involves comparing it to other similar events…and even arguing about what those other similar events might be. A particularly pointed example of such an argument took place on Britain’s Sky News, Rupert Murdoch’s cable news operation in that country. The columnist Owen Jones walked off set in the middle of a discussion of the shootings when the other two people with whom he was appearing repeatedly refused to accept that this was in any particular sense an attack on LGBT people. As Jones pointed out before eventually giving up and leaving, if there were a mass shooting in a synagogue, nobody would hesitate to call it antisemitic.
Those who’ve pointed to other, larger massacres – and much of this discussion implicitly has to do with the slipperiness of that term – have not, I think, done so to minimize the Orlando shootings, but rather to suggest that, far from being the sudden, unusual arrival of an essentially foreign threat on American soil, as Donald Trump, in particular, has suggested, the Orlando shootings fit into a much broader history of American violence.
Of course, like any other event, the Orlando shootings took place in multiple relevant contexts. a fact reflected in the wide range of conversations that are being had about this event. American gun laws, ISIS, homophobia, gay self-loathing, mental health, domestic abuse, immigration, Islam, and toxic masculinity are among the many frames that have, rightly or wrongly, defined the ongoing national discussions of the killings.
Today happens to be the one-year anniversary of another massacre, the Charleston church shooting. One of the remarkable things about the aftermath of that awful event was the extent to which a consensus quickly emerged in American public culture that the most important context for understanding that shooting was the legacy of white supremacy. Within a month, even South Carolina’s Republican Governor Nikki Haley was calling for the confederate flag to be removed from the statehouse grounds.
It’s anybody’s guess what the dominant understanding of the Orlando shootings will be in a year, five years, or a century from now. Presumably our understanding will reflect any new information that we may find out about the shooter and his motives in the coming days and weeks. But one way or another, a well-grounded understanding of this event will involve comparing it to other acts of violence.
 Even Hillary Clinton, it should be said, has presented ISIS as the single most significant context for the shootings. In remarks this Monday, Clinton promised, if elected President, to focus on stopping “lone wolf” terrorists like the Orlando shooter. “The Orlando terrorist may be dead, but the virus that poisoned his mind remains very much alive,” she declared. And that “virus” is connected with “the barbarity we face from radical jihadists.”
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