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A tragedy by any other name: Nation torn over how to describe worst shooting in history

Thousands attend a vigil on Monday, June 13, 2016 at Los Angeles City Hall memorializing those who died in Saturday's attack in Orlando.
Thousands attend a vigil on Monday, June 13, 2016 at Los Angeles City Hall memorializing those who died in Saturday's attack in Orlando.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC

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In the hours after the Orlando massacre that left 49 dead, several lawmakers expressed their condolences to the victims and their families using social media.

Many of those killed Sunday were part of the city's LGBTQ community. As the Washington Post observed, few tweets from Republican leaders mention the community directly. That includes tweets from prominent Republican voices like Florida Senator Marco Rubio, Arizona Senator John McCain, and House Speaker Paul Ryan. An op-ed in Slate went as far as to suggest that they were "erasing LGBTQ people from their own tragedy." 

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has not hesitated to mention the community but brought controversy to the conversation by branding the killings "radical Islamic terror." It's a label both President Obama and presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton have avoided. 

This weekend's violence spotlights two minority groups — both have been a point of division in partisan politics and have left the American public split over how to talk about it. If civilians and policymakers can't agree on how to discuss Sunday's shooting, however, what hope do they have of preventing more violence?

"Republicans have to walk a fine line on gay rights," says Matthew Mendez. He holds a Ph.D. in political science from USC and is a member of the Southern California LGBTQ community. "As the country has become — overall — more accepting of gay rights, there is a portion of their base that is not supportive of gay rights. So — in this case — the social conservative and evangelicals, some of whom are actively opposed to gay rights. And any signal [...] could potentially turn some individuals in their base against them, or spark some outrage that they would prefer to avoid in an election year," Mendez says. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Sunday killings have quickly become a hot-button issue in the election. Many Republican lawmakers find themselves caught between four longstanding points of political contention: gay Americans, Muslim Americans, gun control and presumptive presidential nominee Donald Trump, who has reignited the debate over what to call killers who claim to follow Islam. Trump has labeled Sunday's shooter a "radical Islamic terrorist." Marwa Abdelghani, the community outreach fellow at the Muslim Public Affairs Council, says this is wrong. 

"I think that when we use that kind of language, it's very divisive, and it only perpetuates the violent stereotype [of Islam], and as long as we continue using that kind of language [...] there will always be this association between terrorism and the religion," Abdelghani says. "We just need to call it out for what it is, which is just terrorism. Just violence, hate — and that is all it is. There is no association with a particular faith," she says. 

Press the blue play button above to hear the full interview.