We woke up last Sunday morning to news of the senseless slaughter of 49 innocents at a nightclub in Orlando, Florida. Because many of the victims were gay, it appeared that this had been a hate crime.
It wasn't long before the killer was identified as Omar Mateen, the American-born son of an Afghan immigrant to the United States. Law enforcement officials cautioned against any rush to judgment insisting that they were still investigating "troubling aspects" of the crime. Nevertheless, as soon as politicians, pundits, and the mainstream media heard the news of the faith of the perpetrator, they were off to the races.
Donald Trump immediately congratulated himself for "being right on "radical Islamic terrorism" and reiterated his call for a ban on Muslims coming to the US. He went further suggesting that "something was going on" with President Obama, implying that the President either knew more about the murders than he was admitting or had been derelict in his duty to stop this terrorist threat. While many Republicans expressed outrage at Trump's "hints" of presidential culpability, it was almost universally accepted that this had been an act of "Muslim terror". New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, for example, struck out against "radical Muslims" saying "these people hate us because of who we are, and they’re going to try and kill us, and that’s what this is all about...we've got to hit back.”
For their part, the networks also accepted this as "fact", devoting endless hours to nonsense chatter from "terrorism experts" who despite knowing very little about the crime in question were not going to pass up an opportunity to appear on TV. And then there were columns and commentaries galore about ISIS, violence and homophobia in Islam, what should be done to stop the "radicalization" of Muslim youth, and praise for or criticism of what the Obama Administration was or was not doing to stop the next "terrorist attack" from, as Trump and his GOP colleagues would have it, "radical Islam".
The problem with this narrative version of the Orlando massacre is that it doesn't hold up when we look at it more closely. Another explanation is possible.
Consider the following: Omar Mateen was a deeply disturbed man with a long record of violent and disruptive behavior and spousal abuse. He also seems to have had conflicted feelings about his sexual orientation. Mateen had frequented gay nightclubs and internet gay dating sites. The report that he recently became enraged expressing disgust when he saw two men kissing in public puts the finishing touches on what appears to be the classic portrait of a very sick individual living a lie and tormented by his own confused sexuality. Unable to resolve his inner conflict, he exploded striking out at gays because he feared that he, himself, was gay. He was destroying them because he wanted to destroy that part of himself.
Seen in this light, the despicable senseless mass murder in Orlando would have little or nothing to do with Islam or "radicalization". ISIS, it appears, was only used by the murderer in an effort to "cover his tracks"—that is to say, to mask his true motivation. ISIS didn't lead him to this act of mass homicide. They didn't train him or inspire him. In some of his communications, Mateen conflated ISIS with Hizbollah demonstrating that he either didn't understand or didn't care to understand that group's demented ideology. His final message, pledging loyalty to ISIS, would be his final act of denial. He was lying to himself and the world about who he was and why he did what he did. Being the despicable group that they are, ISIS proudly embraced the sick murderer's claim of allegiance.
A conversation about a man driven to an insane act of mass murder because he was unable to reconcile himself to his sexual inclination might not have served the perverse purposes of Donald Trump or our political/media culture. Such a discussion might not have been good for ratings and wouldn't have played on the public's fear of Muslims or create rage against President Obama.
It should be noted that there were many stories that needed to be told after Orlando—all of which were ignored or given short shrift. In the first place, despite the outpouring of support for the victims of the massacre, gays remain vulnerable to hate crimes and the disgraceful intolerance demonstrated by traditionalists of all stripes (MSNBC's Rachel Maddow, for example, played videotapes of two Baptist preachers expressing the delight that 49 were killed!). It is likely that it was this fear of being rejected and stigmatized that may have festered inside of Mateen finally exploding in his deranged act.
And then there is the issue of assault weapons. It should be clear that it is the very availability of these instruments of death that is responsible for the epidemic of devastating mass killings in the US. These weapons are not for hunters; they are for murderers. They should be banned.
And finally, we need to carefully examine our terminology. If Mateen had been a Christian, like the Charleston slayer, would we have termed the killings "terrorism"? Would the media have indulged itself in an examination about "what's wrong with Christianity"? Would we have called for surveillance of everyone with a Confederate flag license plate? The assumption that a murder by a Muslim is fundamentally different is not only wrong-headed, it keeps us from more closely examining the deeper problem of mass killings and their causes.