By Sylvia Longmire
Contributor, In Homeland Security
I live in Orlando. We’re supposed to be the “Happiest Place on Earth,” thanks to the mouse we are most famous for. But at the moment, we are probably one of the most heavy-hearted places on the planet. Thanks to one terrorist named Omar Mateen, Orlando is currently the site of the deadliest mass shooting in the history of the United States.
This past Saturday evening, I was out with several friends at a live music venue in Sanford, FL, a suburb roughly a half an hour’s drive north of downtown Orlando. By the time things got into full swing around 11:00 p.m., there were about 100 people milling about inside and out on the sidewalk, live bands playing, beer flowing, and everyone chatting and laughing. About 28 miles south of us, a little over 300 people were starting to gather at the popular Pulse nightclub in downtown Orlando. It was Latin Night at the LGBT venue, which was sure to bring in a large crowd.
I got home that night at midnight and was in bed by 1:00 a.m. Like so many of my friends and others in the Orlando area, I was asleep when the bullets started flying around an hour later. The exact details of where Mateen first started firing his AR-15 rifle are unclear, but he was able to make his way into Pulse where he eventually held several patrons hostage for hours.
Mateen engaged Orlando police officers in a protracted shootout. Officers ended the standoff around 5:15 a.m., and Mateen was killed—along with 49 innocent bystanders. Dedicated first responders began attending to the deceased and dozens of wounded at a crime scene that many compared to a war zone. A lot of my friends live or work within a mile of Pulse; some heard the shots and the helicopters.
The Story Is Not the Shooter
This is not a story about who Omar Mateen was, or why he decided to gun down patrons of a gay nightclub. This is also not a debate about gun control, radical Islam or security measures. This is an account of how an American city better known for tourism than terrorism mourns, then gets back up on its feet with determination and resolves before the sun has even set on a tragic day.
June in Orlando is nothing to be trifled with. Temperatures in the morning hours after the attack peaked at 94 degrees with a “feels like” temperature of 104 degrees. This did not deter Orlando residents from getting in lines and waiting for hours outside blood banks and other donation sites. The call went out for virtually every blood type, and our city — as well as neighboring cities and communities — responded in droves. Some blood donation sites ran out of supplies and exhorted donors to come back the next day. Hundreds of volunteers passed out water bottles and sunblock to donors in line. One of my family members waited for 7 ½ hours, then posted on social media once she was hooked up to an IV line that it was well worth the wait.
Candlelight Vigils in Orlando
Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer said in a news conference after the attack, “Our community will be grieving today, the next few days, the next few weeks and the next few months.” He continued, “We need to support each other. We need to love each other, and we will not be defined by a hateful shooter. We will be defined by how we support each other.”
That support and love has worked its way into every corner of my hometown and spread out across the world. Candlelight vigils were held Sunday evening across Florida, in front of the White House, in cities like New York and Milwaukee, and even as far away as London. Cities around the world lit up their monuments and skyscrapers in LGBT rainbow colors in solidarity, and social media took up the hashtag of #OrlandoStrong.
Orlando has been on the list of potential terror targets since 9/11, but mostly because the city’s numerous theme parks are ripe targets with tens of thousands of people amassed in a defined space. No one inside Pulse that night could have suspected that a U.S. citizen born to Afghan parents from Ft. Pierce, Fla., would come looking for them.
Perhaps the attack was a one-off—the result of a lone wolf’s bigotry and violence fueled by misguided allegiance to ISIS. To say fundamental Islam is not LGBT-friendly is an understatement, and the gay community is very concerned they could be the targets of copycat Islamist lone wolves in the future. I look back at my Saturday evening and wonder if anyone in a crowded social venue, gay or straight, will feel safe anymore.
Law enforcement agencies, politicians and security professionals will be dissecting this incident for months and years to come in an attempt to prevent such an attack from happening again. Vicious arguments over gun control will ensue, and there will be plenty of fingers pointed and blame to go around.
But here on the ground in Orlando, what we see in abundance is community. We see sadness, incredulity, courage, helplessness and resolve. We never thought we would be the next Paris, Brussels, Aurora or San Bernardino.
But now that we are, we know what we have to do. We are #OrlandoStrong.