MINNEAPOLIS — In the aftermath of the Pulse nightclub rampage, Americans are struggling to come to terms with another shocking act of mass murder.
But attempts to place Sunday’s tragedy in historical context risk ignoring the bloody history of the United States, including many deadly attacks on oppressed minority groups that resulted in even more deaths and injuries.
“The massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando overnight was the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history, with at least 49 people dead (plus the gunman) and another 53 wounded,” according to a CBS News and Associated Press report which is typical of reporting on the mass killing perpetrated by Omar Mateen.
The CBS/AP report compares Mateen’s rampage to other mass shootings of recent decades, such as the 2007 shooting spree at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia, which left 32 people and the gunman dead, and a 1991 shooting spree in a Luby’s Cafeteria in Killeen, Texas, that left 24 dead, including the gunman, and 20 more wounded.
Writing on Tuesday for The Wall Street Journal, Ariela Gross, the John B. & Alice R. Sharp Professor of Law & History at USC Gould School of Law, warned that to refer to the shooting as “unprecedented” or the “deadliest mass shooting in American history” would be to “forget the last hundred years of U.S. history of mass violence fueled by racial hatred and homophobia.” She continued:
“Although precise numbers of deaths are impossible to specify, at least 100 African Americans were killed in East St. Louis, Ill., in one bloody night in July 1917; anywhere from 55 to 300 blacks were massacred in Tulsa, Okla., in 16 hours in June 1921; and dozens more were killed in Rosewood, Fla., in January 1923. And of course, more recently, 32 died in the 1973 bombing of the UpStairs Lounge, a gay bar in New Orleans.”
Gross did note an important difference between these historic mass killings, including decades of mob violence that targeted blacks, LGBT people, and other minority groups:
“The biggest difference between the hate crimes of the past and Sunday’s mass shooting is that they were group actions rather than the work of a single individual. That is an important difference, to be sure, but it shouldn’t obscure how much yesterday’s events did have in common with past massacres of hated groups.”
Many who took to social media after Sunday’s tragedy to object to the “deadliest” designation also cited killings carried out by the U.S. government or its military.
Not to diminish the horrible events of Orlando but when CNN says its 'the deadliest mass shooting in US history' I think of Wounded Knee.
— Talk is Cheap (@Cutthecrap2012) June 14, 2016
Bob Collins, a blogger for Minnesota Public Radio, echoed many of their concerns when he asked, “What about Wounded Knee?” He described this infamous genocidal act against Native Americans, explaining: “The U.S. Cavalry opened fire on the Lakota Pine Ridge Reservation on December 29, 1890, killing 150 Lakota in a single incident after more and more land was taken from the rightful owners.”
Wounded Knee, he noted, was just one of several massacres of Native Americans, and Collins questioned whether calling Orlando the “worst mass killing” brings “disrespect [to] the memory of the victims of the 19th century massacres?”
Others on Twitter compared the Orlando shooting to the 1993 siege of a compound owned by the Branch Davidians, a small religious sect related to the Seventh Day Adventist Church, located in Waco, Texas. FBI agents and U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms officers ultimately broke the siege with a fiery attack on the compound. During the 51-day standoff, four ATF agents and 82 members of the Branch Davidians were killed.
On Wednesday, Matt Vasilogambros, a senior associate editor for The Atlantic, suggested that the argument over what’s the deadliest killing becomes a distraction from the overall issue of violence in America.
“But what do these titles matter?” he asked. “Would these mass shootings or killings be any less serious or tragic if they weren’t the deadliest?”
Alan Fox, a criminology professor at Northeastern University, went even further, telling Vasilogambros that the title could even inspire future acts of violence:
“Records are made to be broken. We keep on saying it and there are other people who’d like to have that distinction of being the record-holder.”