Our Complicity. Silence = Death.

08/05/2016 03:58 pm ET Updated Aug 06, 2017

Silence = Death. This is perhaps the single most important equation I learned in medical school. It was not taught to me by my professors, but rather by heroes of the early years in the fight against HIV/AIDS. The now iconic image of resistance--a pink triangle--was taken from the Nazi regime, who used an inverted triangle to designate homosexuals. The image of the upright triangle and the equation "Silence = Death" dates back to 1987, when young gay men, fighting for their own survival against the HIV/AIDS epidemic, started to organize against the disease's assault on their freedom to live.

The call of Silence = Death was perhaps most directed to the federal government, which had a tragically inept response to HIV/AIDS. President Regan himself, articulate and forceful on other issues of global security and freedom, did not utter the words HIV/AIDS publicly until after 20,849 Americans had lost their lives and the disease had spread to over 110 countries. This was the horrific cost of mass homophobia.

Silence = Death is an indelible symbol of the possibilities posed by democracy; this image, created six years into the epidemic, helped propel a social movement that would produce a cocktail of life-saving medications in the form of highly active antiretrovirals by 1996. This image has been front and center in my mind since the terror attack on a gay night club in Orlando, where 49, largely black and Latino members of the LGBT community were massacred by an assault rifle-bearing, homophobic American man pledging allegiance to ISIS. The message of Silence = Death could not be more tragically relevant.

The Orlando massacre was not the act of a foreign power. Omar Mateen was an American monster. Born and raised in America, educated in America, radicalized in America, and led to believe gays should die in America. His father (also an American citizen) clearly has warped views on homosexuality that came from his own bigoted reading of Islam. Mr. Mateen's views on homosexuality are not fundamentally different from the homophobia throughout our country--the same homophobia that denies constitutional rights to the LGBT community, which discriminates against the LGBT community from classrooms to restrooms to locker rooms, and which makes LGBT citizens feel isolated. Hate is not a power we can control. "Soft" bigotry, like saying gays can't marry, transgendered people can't use this bathroom, or calling someone a faggot in the locker room is both offensive in their specific instance and part of a broader assault on basic freedoms. And those instances can then compile over the course of a lifetime to make individuals susceptible to violent extremist ideologies, as was the case with Mr. Mateen and ISIS.

We are all complicit in this act of hate and terror. Defending bigotry in the name of so-called religious freedom does not make us a more free society nor safer from terrorism. I'll speak to the religion of my upbringing: Christianity. Since the time of Christ, people have warped the Bible for their own sectarian aims and used Christianity to justify war, slavery, racism, homophobia, and backwards beliefs about the solar system and evolution. Yet, on the other side, Christianity has played a fundamental role in the social movements for abolition, decolonization, desegregation, economic justice, and LGBT rights. It has been the spiritual fuel that has empowered communities to overcome unimaginable forms of oppression.

Religion can be a tremendous force for good, or it can be used as a justification for dogma and hatred. Religion can be a source of deep reflection and inquiry--an essential asset, incidentally, to scientific discovery--or it can be used as an excuse to stop thinking and stop questioning our assumptions. It is upon us, our communities, and our leaders to decide. We need to stop blaming the Bible or the Quran on homophobia, but rather understand the roots of bigotry within our families and communities - and hold to task Christians and Muslims who shield themselves from their bigotry by staying the unquestionable truth of their particular interpretation of their texts. This is a global phenomenon. Ugandan Christians stone homosexuals to death, and the state sponsors the execution of homosexuals; American pastors have had significant influence there, too. Saudi Arabian state-sponsored Wahhabi Islamists execute homosexuals. America can choose to lead in this global cause of freedom, or it can choose to be complicit.

The response to militant Islamist groups like ISIS and al Qaeda demands multiple strategies--part military, part national security systems, part diplomatic approaches with allies. The part that is increasingly underappreciated is the vital role that protecting our basic freedoms play in isolating and defeating terror. Hate begets hate, especially in this globalized world. The global community can be victorious against ISIS militarily, and constrict the areas of land under its control. Even then, there will be underground communities that can reach vulnerable youths with their messages of hate. Indeed, intelligence information to date suggests that Orlando was attacked not by a soldier of ISIS but by one its lonely, isolated admirers. In this sense, he shares a lot in common with another American monster, Dylan Roof, who committed his terror attack almost a year prior at a black Church in Charleston 300 miles to the north, under the banner of white supremacy. Calling Dylan Roof or Omar Mateen "lone wolfs" completely understates the deep cultural, and global, roots of both the persistence of the memes of hate groups and the appeal of them to susceptible young men.

Four weeks after the massacre, after another appalling series of global terror attacks and domestic shootings, let's all hold deep in our memories and our consciousness the victims of the Pulse massacre. Let's remember the next time someone in our communities says something hateful towards certain groups of people. Let's commit to protecting the freedoms of all of us. Bigotry has a vicious way of compounding upon itself. Even in the midst of our collective pain and our anger, we must reflect upon and understand our own patterns of speech and actions and how they fight or contribute to the freedoms of our fellow humans. Silence = Death.