Teaching and Learning Resources | The Attack in Orlando: The Worst Mass Shooting in U.S. History
Below, we offer some ways to teach and learn about the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history and the questions it raises.
Teachers: Before addressing this event in the classroom, you might read our advice on talking about sensitive issues in the news.
Because The Learning Network is for students 13 and older, our resources focus on understanding the massacre and its implications, but parents and teachers of younger students might find this advice, published by The Times after the Newtown shootings, more helpful.
The Attack, the Aftermath and Your Reactions
What do your students know about the attack on an Orlando nightclub on June 12 that left 49 people dead and 53 others wounded? What are their feelings about what happened? What questions do they have?
Though most schools in the U.S. are currently out or in the midst of exams, if you are in the classroom you might invite students to write about their reactions as a first step. When they are finished, you might invite volunteers to read to the whole class, or have students form pairs or small groups to read excerpts to each other first. Or, ask the class to whip around the room, reading “as much as a line, as little as a word” from their responses. From there, as appropriate, teachers might conduct a whole-class discussion or go on to other activities listed below. Students and teachers are also welcome to post their thoughts here.
“Look for the Helpers” — and Find Ways to Be One
In the days after the Newtown shootings, a quote from Fred Rogers, of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” fame, began to go viral:
When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.
Another response? When Jon Collins heard that Omar Mateen may have been motivated to kill after spotting two men kissing, hebecame one of hundreds of people who decided to use photographs of men locked in an embrace. His picture, of his 2008 wedding reception, contains the hashtag #TwoMenKissing.
What can you do in response? One simple thing might be to read about the victims so you know more about the 49 lives that were lost.
An Attack on American Values
The Times reports that, with three different politically-charged issues coming together in this attack, “rarely has American reaction to a human tragedy been as divided.” Since the story raises questions about gun laws, violence against the L.G.B.T. community, and whether the gunman was a radicalized Muslim, Orlando has “so far defied easy categorizations and conclusion.”
But the Op-Ed columnist Frank Bruni argues that this massacre is “bigger, sadder and scarier than any one group of victims”:
This was no more an attack just on L.G.B.T. people than the bloodshed at the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris was an attack solely on satirists.
Both were attacks on freedom itself. Both took aim at societies that, at their best, integrate and celebrate diverse points of view, diverse systems of belief, diverse ways to love. And to speak of either massacre more narrowly than that is to miss the greater message, the more pervasive danger and the truest stakes.
… The threat isn’t only to L.G.B.T. Americans, as past acts of terror have shown and as everyone today must recognize. All Americans are under attack, and not exclusively because of whom we drink, dance or sleep with, but because of our bedrock belief that we should not be subservient to any one ideology or any one religion. That offends and inflames the zealots of the world.
Do you agree? How was this an attack on “all of us,” regardless of race, ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation, because of who we are as a nation? Given our values, what do you think is the best, most fitting way for us to respond?
Orlando and American Mass Shootings
How does the Orlando massacre fit into a larger pattern of mass shootings, both here in the U.S. and around the world? The Times has assembled a list of the deadliest mass shootings, and, in fact, records indicate that on average, a mass shooting takes place every single day in the U.S., though most do not make national headlines.
A vast majority of guns used in 16 recent mass shootings, including two guns believed to be used in the Orlando attack, were bought legally and with a federal background check. One of the guns, the AR-15, which the National Rifle Association has taken to calling “America’s gun,” was also the gun of choice in several other mass shootings: at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn.; at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo.; at a holiday party for county health workers in San Bernardino, Calif.; and at the campus of Umpqua Community College in Oregon, according to this article.
Despite several red flags, including the fact that the Federal Bureau of Investigation investigated him for possible ties to terrorism, the gunman was able to legally purchase weapons.
After the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., which left 20 children and six school staff members dead, President Obama urged the country to take “meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this.” What should meaningful action look like? How should we prevent future mass shootings?
Consult our lesson plan, Watershed: Teaching About Gun Control After Newtown, and read how other students responded to these questions, then add your opinion to the conversation.
A Connection to ISIS?
How is ISIS connected to the Orlando mass shooting? Rukmini Callimachi addresses this question:
The revelation that the 29-year-old man who opened fire on Sunday in a gay nightclub had dedicated the killing to the Islamic State has prompted a now-familiar question: Was the killer truly acting under orders from the Islamic State, or just seeking publicity and the group’s approval for a personal act of hate?
For the terror planners of the Islamic State, the difference is mostly irrelevant.
Influencing distant attackers to pledge allegiance to the Islamic State and then carry out mass murder has become a core part of the group’s propaganda over the past two years. It is a purposeful blurring of the line between operations that are planned and carried out by the terror group’s core fighters and those carried out by its sympathizers.
The Times reports:
Officials cautioned that even if Mr. Mateen, who court records show was briefly married and then divorced, was inspired by the group, there was no indication that it had trained or instructed him, or had any direct connection with him. Some other terrorist attackers have been “self-radicalized,” including the pair who killed 14 people in December in San Bernardino, Calif., who also proclaimed allegiance to the Islamic State, but apparently had no contact with the group.
What are the best ways to prevent “lone wolf” attacks inspired by ISIS? How should the nation respond to attacks of terror committed in the name of ISIS? And, should the Orlando and San Bernardino massacres be treated differently from other mass shootings because the shooters expressed their allegiance to ISIS — and if so, how?
Violence Against the L.G.B.T. Community
What did it mean that it happened in June, Gay Pride Month? Was it a hate crime against gay people or simply evidence that gun violence is out of control — or both? Gay rights have been advancing at a rapid clip. Has that lessened homophobia? Or maybe made it worse? And most of all: Should gay people be afraid?
These are questions that Sheryl Gay Stolberg asks in the article “Orlando Attack Roils Gay Community, Painfully Accustomed to Violence.” The answers are complex. She reminds us:
The gay rights movement, of course, is no stranger to the fear of violence. That includes the days when gay people worried about being branded “faggots” and beaten, whether in small towns or in gay centers like New York; the 1973 arson attack on a gay bar in New Orleans that left 32 people dead; the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard. All are cultural touchstones for the community.
And, Jim Downs writes in his Opinion piece:
Fortunately, the anti-gay attacks of the 1970s did not prevent L.G.B.T. people from meeting and marching, nor did it stop them from gathering at bars and clubs to enjoy themselves. There was too much at stake. We can only hope that the same thing happens today, and that we remember that, despite progress, there is still much at stake. The sites of our liberation must not become the targets of our oppression.
Yet the public mourning following the massacre is a measure of “how far gay culture has progressed from a time when it was frequently hidden from loved ones,” writes The Times in a June 14 piece, “Orlando Shootings Stitch Together Gays and Latinos, 2 Cultures Once at Odds“:
It is a seismic shift from the atmosphere four decades ago after the firebombing of the UpStairs lounge in New Orleans. Back in 1973, some relatives refused to claim the bodies of their gay sons, banishing them to potter’s fields and the New Orleans community joked that the ashes of the dead would be buried in “fruit jars.” Thirty-two people died.
It is not necessary to reach that far back to feel the progress, which has galloped swiftly ahead in the past 10 years. Despite setbacks and plenty of lingering hate, a new generation of gay people and lesbians feels far less weighed down by stigma and fear in today’s rapidly evolving embrace of gay rights.
For much more about L.G.B.T. history, see our collection, Teaching and Learning About Gay History and Issues.
Orlando and the 2016 Election
How do we want our political leaders to respond after a national tragedy like the one that occurred on June 12 in Orlando? Maggie Haberman points out:
Nearly four years ago, when a gunman killed 12 people in Aurora, Colo., Mr. Obama halted his campaign, and Mitt Romney, then the Republican nominee, canceled a speech. The nature and tenor of national politics has changed a great deal since then.
Donald Trump, in particular, responded differently, she explains:
Donald J. Trump on Sunday sought to capitalize on the mass shooting at a gay club in Orlando, reiterating his controversial call for a temporary ban on Muslim migration to the United States and criticizing Hillary Clinton for what he claimed was her desire to “dramatically increase admissions from the Middle East.”
In a demonstration of his willingness to flout convention and engage in a style of demagogic politics rarely displayed by a presidential nominee, Mr. Trump claimed he had warned of the sort of terrorism that marked the shooting, which killed 50 and was the worst in the country’s history.
Mr. Trump’s proposed ban would not have prevented this attack; the suspect was a United States citizen. Still, Mr. Trump is forging ahead with a speech on Monday that had been about Mrs. Clinton, but will now focus on national security.
On Monday, Mr. Trump went further:
Without distinguishing between mainstream Muslims and Islamist terrorists, Mr. Trump suggested that all Muslim immigrants posed potential threats to America’s security and called for a ban on migrants from any part of the world with “a proven history of terrorism” against the United States or its allies. He also insinuated that American Muslims were all but complicit in acts of domestic terrorism for failing to report attacks in advance, asserting without evidence that they had warnings of shootings like the one in Orlando.
Members of the small Muslim community in Fort Pierce, Fla., where Omar Mateen lived strongly condemned his actions and said they feared the sort of backlash that some Muslim people faced after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
After Mr. Trump called for barring Muslims from the U.S. in 2015, we posted a Student Opinion question, What is Your Reaction to Donald Trump’s Proposal to Bar Muslims From Entering the Country? Read what other students had to say then, and consider our lesson plan, Growing Up in a Time of Fear: Confronting Stereotypes About Muslims and Countering Xenophobia, then post your thoughts about this issue.
What do you think: Will what this article characterizes as Donald Trump’s “wager that voters are stirred more by their fears of Islamic terrorism than any concerns they may have about his flouting traditions of tolerance and respect for religious diversity” pay off for him? Why or why not?