The roots of the Orlando shootings grow deep into the fabric of American society.
The routine begins again. The media are on top of it. We know who the killer is: His name is Omar Mateen, an American born to Afghan parents. He’s dead. We know practically nothing for the moment about his relations, to whom he was talking, if anyone. The whole thing looks and feels like terrorism and has been so branded, but this is already being called a lone-wolf attack.
On one level, that makes it sound simple: one man with one motive. But the reality is much too complex for us not to begin seriously looking for other suspects or accomplices, the agents without whom this could never have happened. Even if it was a lone-wolf attack, those suspects surely exist. But the ones we’re looking for may not be identifiable human beings who can talk a killer into a crime, aid and abet him. They may be something else.
Law enforcement may have no time for it, but the media have already started lining up the usual suspects. And, of course, based on ideology or feelings, everyone has a preferred candidate. So, going on the limited information we have about Omar Mateen in the immediate aftermath of the shooting, let’s have a look and see how the suspects fit the contours of the case.
Here’s an initial lineup: Islamic terrorism, homophobic hate crime, puritanical objection to generational sins, mental health/psychological instability, lack of restrictions on access to firearms, the Taliban, revenge against an individual who had wronged him.
The last one in the list is just a decoy, but at this point of the investigation it would be wrong to eliminate anything. Still, we shouldn’t waste time speculating about what’s only remotely possible. We’ll concentrate on the first six, before introducing one or two candidates the media may have missed. We must also bear in mind that the real motivation will probably be the result of a combination of several of these factors.
The connection is direct. For fine criminologists such as Donald Trump, the answer is as obvious as the evidence for it is conclusive. According to reports, Mateen called 911 to “pledge his allegiance” to ISIS. That’s what’s called laying your cards on the table.
Or it is? Pledging one’s allegiance to a terrorist organization via 911 in the middle of the actual operation, with people taken hostage or already dying around you? Doesn’t that sound a little bit odd? Because 911 isn’t usually considered to be a hotline to Daesh. Was Omar Mateen making some sort of free association between 911 and 9/11?
A clever detective might suspect that this pledge of allegiance through the public emergency phone service would constitute proof the terrorist had no contact with ISIS, whereas Donald Trump and others immediately interpret this as proof that Mateen was integrally linked with the terrorist organization.
Mateen’s family claims he wasn’t religious, but of course we should bear in mind that ISIS, as its name implies—Islamic State of Iraq and Syria—is primarily a political movement rather than a religious one. There are no legitimate religious leaders or theologians behind ISIS. It is an organization dedicated to reconquering territory in one region of the world, territory that was recently taken away from the Sunnis by Americans who rewarded Shiites with control. The Sunni Islamic identity of the vast majority of the population in those territories constitutes what is essentially a symbolic unifying factor, almost like the flag does in the US. The movement isn’t driven or defined by religion, but by politics and historical power relationships. Not any more than “turn the other cheek” could possibly define American military policy. Politics sets its own rules for unifying the people who accept to fight in its name.
On the other hand, what does distinguish ISIS in terms of its mission is that it was born from and directly opposes the military occupation of traditional Islamic territories by the United States and its “coalition of the willing.” As an American Muslim, Mateen may have seen ISIS as a symbol of resistance against the invaders and oppressors of Muslim lands.
All observers immediately recognized the superficial resemblance between the Orlando attack and the Paris attacks in November 2015. The differences are even more striking. The simultaneous attacks on the Bataclan club in Paris and several other locations were well organized and carefully synchronized. They involved a wide group of people and the connection with ISIS. Mateen, the lone wolf, apparently managed on his own.
Our tentative conclusion: Global Islamic terrorism, and particularly the operation in Paris in 2015, provided a precedent and a model for the Mateen’s assault, but he planned and executed it himself. As a force of resistance against Western conquest in the Middle East, ISIS represented a symbolic political entity commanding Mateen’s sense of belonging, even though as an American of Afghan descent he had no real connection to it.
Anti-gay hate crime
This is nearly as obvious as the first one. According to The Guardian, the federal investigators see hatred of gays as a stronger motive than Islamic terrorism. Both Mateen’s father and his ex-wife pointed to this aspect of his personality. His attitude can be linked to religion but on its own his down-with-gays attitude would not appear to be sufficient motivation for planning and carrying out a mass killing. That is unless there was something more to it, which appears to be the case based on the latest testimony of regulars at the Pulse who revealed that Mateen was a frequent customer and was considered by some who knew him to be gay.
While people disagree radically on questions that apply here, such as the status of Muslims or gays in American society or the constitutional right to own and use guns, there are cultural themes that are shared by all. The culture of rough justice is one of them.
The attack may have been a terrifying act of denial, possibly based on the conflict between his religious beliefs concerning homosexuality and his identification with the gay community. His declaration of allegiance to ISIS could have been the easy way out for a man driven mad by his own problems of identity. Adopting the violent methods of ISIS to reestablish order in his own life, through mass murder he could annihilate as many gay people as possible, including himself. His religious beliefs and sexual identity had reached a point of conflict so unbearable that only violence could put one in front of the other.
Puritanical objection to generational sins
This could be a feature of Mateen’s profile, though no one seems to have mentioned it. His ex-wife claims that at the beginning he “was a normal guy, joking, laughing, you know, like having fun,” and then he changed.
She also mentioned that he “desperately wanted to be a policeman and hung out with a lot of cops,” which could reflect a puritanical mindset and the wish to play a role controlling other people’s behavior. He did become a security officer after obtaining a degree in criminal justice technology. He thus succeeded in defining himself as someone who defends the law and the rules through the eventual use of force and technological means. This was before something altered his trajectory impelling him to carry out what he may have felt as a personal (but clearly perverse) campaign of “justice” against subjectively perceived evils, which appears to be a common characteristic of many mass killings.
“In the beginning he was a normal being that cared about family, loved to joke, loved to have fun, but then a few months after we were married I saw his instability. I saw that he was bipolar and he would get mad out of nowhere. That’s when I started worrying about my safety.” In the final stages of her marriage, Mateen’s ex-wife says she “made a police report” concerning his abuse of her. If Mateen truly was bipolar, he would have suffered from a disorder affecting an estimated 5.7 million adult Americans—2.6% of the population. This could obviously be a contributing, but probably not a determining, factor. It’s difficult to imagine anyone who isn’t somewhat mentally off-kilter planning and executing this type of massacre.
Easy access to firearms
American gun laws are the recurrent theme liberals always put forward following mass murders. If only the killer hadn’t been able to purchase the weapons he used, especially assault weapons. The debate remains abstract since many of the mass killings are carried out with weapons that would have been available even with stricter laws.
Assault rifles do appear to be the privileged weapon for mass killings. We learned that Mateen purchased his AR-15—sometimes called “America’s gun”—only a week before the attack. It was also the weapon of choice for Adam Lanza in Sandy Hook, James Holmes in Denver, and the killers of San Bernardino and Umpqua College.
It has become a tradition on a par with turkey for Thanksgiving, and there is little doubt that the omnipresence of firearms is a contributing factor to the attack but had no role in its motivation.
No one seems to take the Taliban connection seriously because Mateen was born in New York and spent his entire life in the US and never lived in Afghanistan. His ex-wife called him “Americanized.” According to The Washington Post, Omar’s Aghan father, Seddique Mateen, who may be Pashtun, has been known to support Afghan causes and possibly maintain contact with the Taliban.
The New York Times calls him an “outspoken Afghan political activist.” Links to the Taliban for the moment appear tenuous. The idea that Seddique Mateen was in any way complicit in his son’s act has not been put forward. The media will undoubtedly seek to expose the possible role, direct or indirect, that Omar’s father may have played. Omar apparently referenced both ISIS and the Boston bombers, but neither has a connection with Afghanistan and the Taliban.
I initially ruled this out, but a case could be made on the basis of Mateen’s apparent problems of sexual identity, that the individual who had wronged him was a certain Omar Mateen. Given what we have learned about possible relations with other customers or personnel of the Pulse, there may also be a story related to the actions of someone who may have betrayed or disappointed him.
For some young American Muslims, the fact that they belong to a group many, including leading presidential candidates, believe to be the enemy of all that is holy in America, may be the trigger that incites them to act.
It should be clear from the above that what we are likely to find in the end is a combination of elements that led Mateen to act. The list now needs to be extended, to make sure that we exclude no serious factors. I’ll add two items, one possibly trivial and the other fundamental.
The FBI itself
According to FBI agent Ron Hopper, the FBI interviewed Mateen twice, in 2013 and 2014, on the basis of reports of statements he was heard making, but could not substantiate any connection to terrorists. A standard procedure of the FBI since 9/11 in the war on terror has been an elaborate form of direct provocation aimed at encouraging—and materially assisting—unstable young men to commit a terrorist act and then arresting the culprit in flagrante delicto.
In some cases, the targets are men with documented links to terrorist organizations but some of them are simply young men who have expressed sympathy for Muslim resistance in the Middle East or resentment over the occupation of Muslim lands. If they didn’t try this method with Mateen, it may be because he didn’t seem to fit into their typology of terrorists. On the other hand, the pair of interviews they subjected him to may have served to aggravate Mateen’s budding paranoia by making him believe that he was considered to be an enemy of the state.
Whether there is any truth to this hypothesis or not, it is unlikely to be investigated or explored by the media.
The culture of rough justice
Every newsworthy act, whether glorious or tragic, reveals something about the culture in which it takes place. The themes that may reveal the keys to Omar Mateen’s motives all have their place within something much larger, a set of behaviors, perceptions, values and moral assumptions.
While people disagree radically on questions that apply here, such as the status of Muslims or gays in American society or the constitutional right to own and use guns, there are cultural themes that are shared by all. The culture of rough justice is one of them. “A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do” is the formula spoken like a dictum in the background. Vigilantes, lynch mobs and Twitter death threats are facets of it. It exists on the right and the left.
The massive expression of outrage at the lenient sentence handed down recently to the Stanford rapist, Brock Turner, is an example of it. It contains a thirst for justice and a call to action, and occasionally may burst into actual violence. It is behind a lot of the emotional crime in America. The emotion grows around the idea of achieving justice that has otherwise been denied. And the handiest tool for implementing justice is the omnipresent gun.
The US appears to be the only nation where guns are seen as an essential means of justice rather than an instrument of aggression. Hollywood has been far more instrumental in establishing this than the NRA itself.
I call it the “true grit” ethos. At the individual level, it’s the Hollywood meme of a hero’s brave resolution to overcome the deficiencies of the law or the established institutions by working, planning, building and then executing summary justice on one’s own. The two films with the title True Grit present the extreme archetypal example of this cultural logic, extreme in that it’s a 14 year-old girl rather than a muscular male hero who is determined to get the job done (though not without the assistance of a cowboy, albeit flawed).
This cultural meme has been deeply instilled in US culture, though few outside of film characters would imperil their own security by acting on it. The meme does however inevitably help mass killers to make the fatal decision to act. The “cause” may be, as in the case of Elliot Rodgers, the injustice of the entire female gender with regard to himself or Timothy Veigh’s frustration with the federal government. In the case of Dylann Root, it was his conviction that blacks were taking over the nation created by and for his race.
For some young American Muslims, the fact that they belong to a group many, including leading presidential candidates, believe to be the enemy of all that is holy in America, may be the trigger that incites them to act. This simply means that history, for each of these actual killers, has provided particular conditions that can incite them to show their “true grit” rather than simply being content with death threats.
But true grit doesn’t apply to individuals only. It is a fundamental part of the collective culture. We see it playing out in the political field as it increasingly provides the justification for war, especially modern wars conducted in an increasingly discretionary manner by governments whose agendas are no longer subjected to public debate or consent. The idea of battling “terror” (an emotion rather than a political force) facilitates the abuse of power by bellicose governments.
For the past 40 years, the US government has clearly become the most outstanding practitioner of discretionary—sometimes called preventive—wars, an historical phenomenon made possible by the abolition of the draft under President Nixon. If American families aren’t called upon to participate in the war effort physically or even financially (at least directly), they apparently will gratefully forgo the bothersome business of debating public policy.
Of course, the individual manifestation of true grit culture isn’t to the taste of everyone. The ritual of mass killings always produces an immediate campaign to ban the sale of at least assault weapons and to better control the sale of all types of guns. This is put forward as the key action in solving the problem, but laws and restrictions, especially if only progressively applied, rarely transform culture in any serious way.
Even if we pass very strict gun laws, the culture of using firearms to get even with real or imaginary enemies is so deeply ingrained that other means—possibly a little less violent—will be discovered or invented. It is extremely unlikely that any law could have the effect of changing the perception of what a gun represents. The US appears to be the only nation where guns are seen as an essential means of justice rather than an instrument of aggression. Hollywood has been far more instrumental in establishing this than the NRA itself.
Preventing future tragedies
Most commentators will agree that gun laws will predictably not be modified as a result of the Orlando attack. The debate in the coming days and weeks will focus, as we have already seen, on identifying the unique cause of the crime, either Muslim terrorism and/or hatred of gays. In the midst of a presidential campaign, the candidates will cultivate the fear and condemnation of a real or imaginary source of evil and articulate vague intentions of new policy guaranteed to prevent it from happening again. And of course it will happen again because the guns will still be there, the culture intact and the geopolitical situation will provide all the required pretexts.
Both of the likely rivals for the presidency are known for their commitment to true grit. We can expect them in the course of the campaign to find appropriate ways of promising, if not demonstrating, how their own true grit will get the job done. Neither of them will have the courage to buck the culture and assert what most objective observers acknowledge: that pulling back from confrontation, preferring diplomacy to force, severely reducing a massive military presence that both destroys lives and intimidates entire populations, are the only effective means of disarming both the terrorist networks and lone wolves. They best way to disarm a dangerous civilian is not to give him a reason for going to the nearest gun shop to purchase a weapon, with the intention of expressing his “true grit” against a room full of innocent people and feel he has begun to even the score.
Tender justice has always worked better than rough justice. It’s the culture of justice—wit replacing grit —that we need to change.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.