Blogs > Jim Loewen > Orlando Was Not “The Worst Mass Shooting in U.S. History”

Jun 20, 2016

Orlando Was Not “The Worst Mass Shooting in U.S. History”

tags: terrorism,guns,LGBT,Mass Shooting,Orlando

Washington DC Vigil in honor of Orlando victims

Related Links

●  The Deadliest Mass Killings in American History by a Lone Shooter

● Historians, Police and Others Argue What Makes Orlando Massacre ‘Worst’ (NYT)

Sociologist James W. Loewen is the author of Lies My Teacher Told Me.

I mean no disrespect to the victims in the horrific massacre in Orlando and their friends and family members now left behind to grieve. We must all show solidarity with them. Yes, most were GLBT. Yes, many were likely in the U.S. illegally. Nevertheless. Nothing they did or failed to do justifies in the slightest the carnage visited upon them. They were sacred holy people. They are our kin.

Recently we have been struck by terrorists from various orientations:

● Muslim  (S. Farook and T. Malik, San Bernardino, CA; T. and D. Tsarnaev, Boston Marathon),

● anti-GLBT (O. Mateen, Orlando),

● rightwing (T. McVeigh, Oklahoma City),

● neo-Confederate (D. Roof, Charleston, SC),

● Amish hater (C. C. Roberts, Nickel Mines, PA),

● mentally ill (A. Lanza, Newport, CT),

● or merely alienated teenager (E. Harris and D. Klebold, Columbine, CO).

Some terrorists were two-fers: Mateen, for example, was Muslim and anti-GLBT. McVeigh was rightwing and neo-Confederate.

With such a panoply of potential enemies, none of us is safe. For example, I personally have an Amish-style beard, so I might have been construed as an “appropriate” target by any of the above perpetrators except the last, since I do not work at a high school or look like a teenager.

The point of this essay is not to tell anyone how to cope with terrorism, individually, as an institution or an entire nation. My point is to rescue us from white history.

It is white history to think for a moment that, as so many have put it, the Orlando massacre is “the worst mass shooting in U.S. history.”

Before refuting this amnesiac claim, I must make one qualification. Might we mean, by “mass shooting,” done by one person? Surely we do not. In my list above, (which of course included two incidents done by bombs – Oklahoma City and Boston), two involved more than one perpetrator (San Bernardino and Columbine). Moreover, we may yet learn that Mateen or Roof had accomplices. Surely we do not desire a definition of "mass shooting" that excludes Columbine, for example.

So the answer has to be no. But in that case, just imagining that the murder of a "mere" 49 people might be the largest mass shooting in U.S. history shows a complete insensitivity to race relations.

Consider these ten events, in chronological order, with the number of victims in parentheses:

1.  The Gnadenhutten massacre of 1782 (100 Native Americans).

2.  The murders of African Americans in NYC in 1863 during the "NYC Draft Riots" (>120 African Americans)

3.  The Fort Pillow Massacre of 1864 (100-300, most African Americans).

4.  The Colfax Massacre of 1873 (150 African Americans).

5.  Rock Springs, Wyoming (78? Chinese Americans)

6.  The Massacre at Wounded Knee, 1890 (300 Native Americans).

7.  The East St. Louis race riot [by whites, against blacks] of 1919 (40-200 African Americans).

8.  The Elaine [AR] massacre of 1919 (>100 African Americans).

9.  The murders of black residents in the Tulsa race riot in 1921 (100? African Americans).

10. The Rosewood [FL] massacre of 1923 (150 African Americans).

True, in #1 event the attackers (white Americans) used knives, not guns, so the victims died not in a “mass shooting” but a “mass killing.” True, some of the dead in #2, 5, 7, and 9 died when whites burned their houses, but many in #5 and most in #2, #7, and #9 died from gunfire. True, #3 and #6 could be considered war deaths, but both groups had surrendered when the massacres took place. Otherwise, there is a pattern: in each of these mass murders or mass shootings: most of the victims were nonwhite.

In this context, any historian or other commentator who claims Orlando was the "deadliest mass shooting" in American history is also saying no to BLM -- black lives (and Native American lives and Chinese American lives) do NOT matter. For if they mattered, then we would know we as a people have a long history, beginning long before 1782, actually, of mass shootings and mass murders of nonwhites.* Whites have also been massacred – 120 at Mountain Meadows in southern Utah in 1857, for instance, by Mormons.

The fix for this amnesia is easy. Just add one word, “recent,” before “history,” thus implicitly acknowledging our violent past.

*Whether Orlando should be included depends upon one’s view – and especially Mateen’s view – of the racial definition of Latinos.  

Copyright James W. Loewen

Image by Ted Eytan from Washington, DC, USA (2016.06.13 From DC to Orlando Vigils 06103) [CC BY-SA 2.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons

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