Very early this morning, Omar Mateen, armed with an AR-15-style assult rifle and a handgun, went into a popular LGBTQ nightclub in Orlando Florida and killed more than fifty people. As we go through the all-too-familiar motions of mourning the dead and comforting the injured and donating blood, and as we ready ourselves for yet another round of political arguments about how this can keep on happening and what can we do about it, I find myself thinking of an event nearly twenty years ago.
In the summer of 1998 I spent about three months living in the south of England, in Gloucestershire. I had been in the rental cottage for a week or two when, on Saturday August 15, the news came over the radio and television about a car bombing in Omagh, Northern Ireland. It was horrible — the explosion, in one of the town’s shopping areas, killed 31 people and injured more than 200 others. It had been executed by the “Real IRA”, a splinter group from the IRA, in protest of the Good Friday agreement that was the beginning of the resolution of the Troubles.
The political reaction to the bombing — in Ireland, in England, and internationally — was a swift and universal denunciation. Catholics had been killed; Protestants had been killed; Irish children hosting Spanish exchange students had been killed; and there was a haunting image, a photograph taken by a person killed in the bombing, of a man with a child on his shoulders standing next to the explosive-filled car that moments later was to take so many lives.
The Omagh bombing seemed to be a tipping point. The feeling of all involved was no more! The peace process — which had already gone far, despite the very real difficulties of the negotiations — was strengthened by the revulsion at the violence in Omagh, and the “Real IRA” lost whatever political standing it had.
When will America have its Omagh?
Will it be Orlando? Or will we have to wait for yet another horrendous shooting before we can get any kind of sensible gun control? We need to start the difficult negotiations now, so that we will have something to build on when our consciences are finally shocked enough to spur us, as a nation, to action. While we wait, people are dying daily in events not newsworthy enough to be noticed.
But I have to believe that finally something will break the political stalemate. I have to believe that someday, we will have our Omagh.
[Edited to add:]
(One difference between Orlando and Omagh: In Omagh, the slaughter was indiscriminate, as I mentioned above. In Orlando, the killer attacked in an LGBTQ gathering place on “Upscale Latin Saturday”, thus targeting the LGBTQ community and the Hispanic community. These groups are both currently being attacked in American political discourse — as they have been for decades.)