Here we go again, this time in Florida, in Orlando. This time it was again both distressing and familiar:
A gunman who pledged allegiance to the Islamic State opened fire in a crowded gay nightclub here early Sunday in a shooting that left 50 dead and another 53 wounded. The gunman, identified as Omar Mateen, had been investigated twice by the FBI for possible connections to terrorism, the bureau said, but no ties could be confirmed.
Mr. Mateen, 29, an American citizen whose parents were from Afghanistan, called 911 and talked about the Islamic State at the time of the massacre at the Pulse nightclub, the worst mass shooting in American history, Ronald Hopper, an assistant agent in charge of the FBI’s Tampa Division, said at a news conference. Other federal officials said more explicitly that he had declared allegiance to the group.
“The FBI first became aware of him in 2013 when he made inflammatory comments to co-workers alleging possible terrorist ties,” but could not find any incriminating evidence, Agent Hopper said.
In 2014, the bureau investigated Mr. Mateen again, for possible ties to Moner Mohammad Abusalha, an American who grew up in Florida but went to Syria to fight for an extremist group and detonated a suicide bomb. Agent Hopper said the bureau concluded that the contact between the two men had been minimal, and that Mr. Mateen “did not constitute a substantive threat at that time.”
He was an ISIS terrorist – or perhaps he only wanted to be one – or maybe he hated and feared gay folks with all his heart and used the ISIS stuff as a convenient way to mask that. No one knew, and it really didn’t matter:
The suspicions did not prevent Mr. Mateen, who lived in Fort Pierce, Fla., from working as a security guard, or from buying guns. The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives said Mr. Mateen legally bought a long gun and a pistol in the last week or two, though it was not clear whether those were the weapons used in the assault.
Not much was really clear. He scared his coworkers – they called the FBI – he was married briefly and regularly beat the crap out of his wife, so she left, but none of this rose to the level of arresting the guy to keep America safe. There were bigger and more obvious threats out there, so what followed was a bit of a joke:
Hours after the attack, the Islamic State claimed responsibility in a statement released over an encrypted phone app used by the group. It stated that the attack “was carried out by an Islamic State fighter,” according to a transcript provided by the SITE Intelligence Group, which tracks jihadist propaganda.
But officials cautioned that even if Mr. Mateen, who court records show was born in New York and had been married and divorced, had been inspired by the group, there was no indication that it had trained or instructed him, or had any direct connection with him.
And he may have been inspired by the group as an afterthought at the last moment, so our government’s official response covered all possibilities:
“The FBI is appropriately investigating this as an act of terror,” President Obama said from the White House. He said that the gunman clearly had been “filled with hatred” and that investigators were seeking to determine any ties to overseas terrorist groups.
“In the face of hate and violence, we will love one another,” he said. “We will not give in to fear or turn against each other. Instead, we will stand united as Americans to protect our people and defend our nation, and to take action against those who threaten us.”
As he had after previous mass shootings, the president said the shooting demonstrated again the need for what he called “common sense” gun measures.
“This massacre is therefore a further reminder of how easy it is for someone to get their hands on a weapon that lets them shoot people in a school or a house of worship or a movie theater or a nightclub,” Mr. Obama said. “We have to decide if that’s the kind of country we want to be. To actively do nothing is a decision as well.”
In short, forget the motive for the crime, which may never be clear, and remove the means.
That’s what happened out here a few hours later. Our police arrested a young man with a car filled with heavy weapons headed to our gay pride parade – a young white-bread kid from Indiana on the lam after an Indiana court told him to get rid of his arsenal, because he loved pointing loaded weapons at people and scaring the shit out of them. He wasn’t ISIS at all. He also doesn’t seem to have any problem with gay people at all. He just likes pointing loaded weapons at people and scaring the shit out of them. We had a big parade here. That would do. The police stopped him in Santa Monica, before he could make it to West Hollywood. Forget the motive. Remove the means.
That seems simple, but David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker, explains how there was no way to keep this simple:
In the rhetoric of Donald Trump, mendacity and cynicism compete for equal time. It is hard to say which prevailed today as the Republican Party standard-bearer, a man who pretends to the most powerful political office in the land, tweeted this at his followers: “Appreciate the congrats for being right on radical Islamic terrorism.”
This came in the wake of the most horrific mass shooting in the history of the United States – a slaughter of fifty men and women in an LGBT night club called Pulse, in Orlando, early Sunday morning. Trump allowed that he didn’t want “congrats” so much as he wanted “toughness & vigilance.” Just as profoundly, he announced, “We must be smart!”
Trump also told his followers – and hence the world – that President Obama should “immediately resign in disgrace” for failing to “mention the words radical Islam” in his remarks on the shooting. And, he suggested, Hillary Clinton might want to get out of the Presidential race for making the same sin of omission in her statement.
There were no congratulations. Trump made that up, and every Republican running for office in November, as a member of what is now Donald Trump’s party, has one more thing they have to explain, which Remnick explains this way:
With every month, it has become clearer that Trump is a makeshift politician, whose rancid wit resides in his willingness to say whatever it takes to arouse the fears of a political base. He might have started his campaign with the idea of winning some votes and publicity, increasing his profile as a marketing whiz, and then dropping out. Good for business! But now that he has stunned the political world – and, likely, himself – he has shown little inclination (or, perhaps, capacity) to grow into his role, to modify his language, be it for the sake of the Republican establishment or of simple decency. He’ll have none of that. Whatever inflates his sense of self and prods the anxieties of the country – that’s what works for him.
It feels indecent on such a day to engage these comments of Trump’s at all. But their velocity, vapidity, and sheer ugliness reflect his character, his emptiness, and, most of all, the shape of the election campaign to come. Since Trump has ascended, it’s been clear that his demagogic instincts could be tested precisely by the sort of tragedy suffered in Orlando. And, when faced with the path of modesty and the path of dark opportunism, he has chosen the latter. That’s what he is about. It’s who he is.
Remnick, however, sees nothing new here:
In the wake of the attacks in Brussels, last March, Trump was asked if he would consider using nuclear weapons to fight ISIS. “Well, I’m never gonna rule anything out,” he said. “The fact is, we need unpredictability.” He said the terrorists were “winning,” and “we don’t do anything about it.” Waterboarding, he said, “would be fine.”
Now, Trump is again pounding the notion of American leadership as “weak,” as complacent.
“If we do not get tough and smart real fast, we are not going to have a country anymore,” Trump said in a statement posted on his campaign’s Web site. “Because our leaders are weak, I said this was going to happen – and it is only going to get worse. I am trying to save lives and prevent the next terrorist attack. We can’t afford to be politically correct anymore.”
That may be bullshit:
Trump’s ruse is that somehow the United States is not engaged militarily in the fight against ISIS, or that “political correctness” is the chief factor undermining American security. He feeds his constituents daily with the misbegotten notion that the country is being flooded with countless unchecked “aliens” from the Middle East, South Asia, and Mexico. The mouth moves and the lies pour forth. Any contrary evidence, any complexity, is foreign. Questioned on television to prove his points, faced with contrary evidence, he talks past it. Never mind all the firepower expended against ISIS targets, the territory gained, and the difficulty of taking back cities when ordinary civilians are used, en masse, as human shields. We are weak; we are politically correct.
And yes, this is all about him. He simply and boldly seized an opportunity. He can use those fifty deaths. He can ride those fifty deaths to the White House. Meanwhile, there are decent people:
President Obama, in his statement, displayed a sense of calm resolution, grief, and outrage – as he has done repeatedly, after mass shootings in Binghamton, Fort Hood, Tucson, Aurora, Oak Creek, Overland Park, Newtown, Chapel Hill, Charleston, Chattanooga, San Bernardino, and elsewhere. Hillary Clinton, too, issued a statement that was rational, heartfelt, and touched on all the necessary aspects of the killings as we know them thus far – terrorism, the need to go on battling terrorism, the preposterously easy availability of guns, the victimization of the LGBT community.
The horror in Orlando was unspeakable. And we will learn much more about it in the days ahead. But today the event was made that much worse by a Presidential candidate who seeks to lead the country in complicated times and in its darker moments with self-aggrandizing tweets and hollow words.
Remnick is unhappy, but Salon’s Amanda Marcotte, looking at the general reaction on the right, is even more upset:
Once it was revealed that Mateen called 911 and pledged his loyalty to ISIS, they were ready to shill their narrative. After all, even though President Obama and Hillary Clinton have had far more success fighting Islamic terrorism than George W. Bush – the former two presided over the assassination of Osama Bin Laden, the latter started the adventure-war in Iraq that led to the formation of ISIS in the first place – right-wing propaganda efforts have been disturbingly effective at blaming liberals and Democrats for being “soft” on Islamic terrorism and hinting that there’s some kind of affection for groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda. This, even though it should be blatantly obvious that liberalism, with its insistence on equal rights for women and sexual freedom, is the antithesis of the right wing ideology that motivates Islamic terrorists.
That didn’t occur to them, so it began:
“It’s not a hate crime,” Sebastian Gorka of Fox News said. “It is part of an ideological military assault on the United States of America.”
Bullshit. Terrorism of this nature and hate crimes are exactly the same thing: Acts of violence performed to send a political message in support of bigotry and in opposition towards the liberal goal of an accepting, open society.
“This attack in part was facilitated by the policies of this administration,” Gorka continued, spinning further and further away from reality, “President Obama and Secretary Clinton, who have allowed political correctness into the threat assessment.”
Donald Trump is plucking the same strings: “Is President Obama going to finally mention the words radical Islamic terrorism? If he doesn’t he should immediately resign in disgrace!”
Marcotte is frustrated:
What does this line of attack even mean? After all, whenever Democrats do things like stand up for the rights of LGBT people to get married, live free of discrimination, or even use the bathroom in peace, they get lambasted by right wingers for this supposed “political correctness”. Are we meant to believe that Mateen shot up a gay bar as a show of politically correct solidarity with the rights of LGBT Americans? Can these right wing bloviators even hear themselves anymore?
Liberals do not deny that the Islamic fundamentalism preached by groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda regards homosexuality as an abomination and opposes the rights of gay people to live freely and to marry. But guess what! So do the Christian fundamentalists in our own country, the very same ones who are always telling us how oppressed they are by “political correctness” and how they are being denied their “religious freedom” when they are expected to treat LGBT Americans equally.
One might, for once, look at this logically:
The common thread here, again and again, is religious fundamentalism, whether your call it “Christian” or “Muslim.” LGBT people have been the favorite punching bag of the Christian right in this country for years. Whenever the Christian right needs to rally the troops, they start running around, hair on fire, screaming about how the queers are out to get your children.
For a decade, it was hollering about how legalizing same-sex marriage portended the death of our civilization. When they realized that dog wasn’t going to hunt any longer, because the Supreme Court legalized it and society didn’t collapse, they shifted gears, claiming Christians are losing their “religious freedom” because they have to follow anti-discrimination laws just like everyone else. Now they’re screaming about how letting trans people use the bathroom in peace is somehow turning bathrooms into dangerous places for women and girls.
But while there is absolutely zero evidence that allowing LGBT people their basic rights has done any damage whatsoever to straight people, there is a substantial amount of reason to believe that this constant drumbeat of bigoted rhetoric coming from the religious right makes the world less safe for LGBT folks.
According to the FBI’s latest hate crime statistics, over 20% of the 5,479 hate crime incidents in 2015 were anti-LGBT. Violence against trans people, in particular, is on the rise, in no small part because of the increasing drumbeat of anti-trans rhetoric coming from the Christian right. You keep screaming about how trans people are supposedly going to rape you in the bathroom, you can’t be surprised if someone decides it’s okay to beat or even murder a trans person.
Whose side are they on? How will they explain this? Marcotte knows:
The cover story the right will surely hide behind when arguing that their homophobia is okay, while Muslim homophobia is evil, is that “Christians” don’t act out violently on their beliefs. (I’ve already had to block people on Twitter for pulling this card, and it’s just a matter of time before someone tries to split that hair on Fox News.) This is, as those FBI crime statistics show, utter bullshit. Those crimes happened in a country where most of the homophobia is justified by citing Christianity, not Islam. Wave the Bible or wave the Koran, the common theme here is using religion as cover for vile bigotry.
Omar Mateen’s ex-wife has also come forward to say that he beat her during their extremely brief marriage. This is no surprise. Homophobia, misogyny, toxic masculinity, and religious fundamentalism are all tied together in a noxious knot that feminists call “patriarchy” – and it’s a cancer that crosses cultural and national and even religious lines.
It’s the root cause of those anti-gay hate crimes, of that disgusting Stanford rapist’s entitlement (and of rape generally), of the thousands of women who lose their lives to domestic violence, of all manner of oppression, from child marriage to abortion bans to anti-sodomy laws.
If so, Marcotte suggests this:
We do not fight this evil by blaming liberalism. We fight it by embracing liberalism, and the values of equality, religious liberty, acceptance, and sexual freedom. We strive for an end of all religions teaching that homosexuality is a sin or that women are inferior to men. We demand an end to all hate, whether it goes under the name of “Christianity” or “Islam” or whatever other word you want to give it. Only then will people be free to live their lives without fear of bigotry-based violence.
Or, conversely, we could do what Trump proposed late in the day of the Orlando massacre – now make double-sure no Muslim ever enters America again – even if this particular fellow was an American, born here. Trump will ride those fifty deaths to the White House.
Should this be politicized at all? Slate’s Katy Waldman addresses that:
Americans know the anti-politicization script by heart. Pundits roar on cue about exploiting calamity. “Doesn’t the politicization of all of this, the relentless lying by the administration about the Islamic terror threat we face, make it harder for people to want to step forward and say what they see?” asked Tucker Carlson on Fox News. (I can’t unravel his logic, but he seems to suggest that by not confirming facts we don’t yet have, Obama is preventing citizens from speaking up with their own baseless accusations.) And when Bernie Sanders brought up gun control on NBC, Chuck Todd questioned whether it was possible to “ever have a conversation where we have the terrorism conversation and the gun conversation … without trying to politicize one version of events over the other.”
We’ve been here before:
The first time the office of the presidency invoked “politicization” to deflect censure was in 1994, when White House press secretary Dee Dee Myers took then-Minority Whip Newt Gingrich to task for claiming that a helicopter crash might have been prevented had Clinton set aside more money for the military. “I think that we are very close to a significant mismatch between our defense budget and our foreign policy,” Gingrich said. Myers responded: “Any attempts to politicize that kind of tragedy are just highly inappropriate. … At a time when the next of kin hasn’t even been notified, to try to use an incident like that for political advantage is just unacceptable.”
A year later, however, it was Clinton being accused of exploiting the Oklahoma City bombing to take shots at his critics. After the president decried hateful speech spreading through the media and creating a poisonous anti-government climate, a Washington Post op-ed page featured a letter arguing that “President Clinton’s insensitive attempt to politicize this tragedy is an unconscionable act by a desperate politician” which “cheapens the lives of those unfortunate victims.” A few months later, then-House Rep. John Kasich slammed Clinton for politicizing base closings.
Then this became the norm:
In the span of two months during 1996, a car crash, a slain cop, and the accidental death of a toddler living in poverty were all wrongfully “politicized,” in the words of government officials. By the time mass shooters rampaged through Columbine High School in 1999, President Clinton was on his guard. He told a crowd in Houston that he “did not want to politicize” the incident. Then, recounted a journalist for the Washington Post, Clinton “pointed out that he favors reinstating gun buyer waiting periods under federal law, closing loopholes in the assault weapons ban that are ‘big enough to drive a truck through,’ and requiring background checks for those who buy weapons at gun shows.”
Running for president, George W. Bush accused his rival Al Gore of “making a political issue” out of shootings at a church in Fort Worth, Texas. When Gore asked, “How can you allow guns in churches?” a spokeswoman for the Bush campaign replied: “The American people are tired of politicians trying to politicize every tragedy.”
Since then, practically every calamity you can name has been, in the eyes of some, unjustly politicized: Sept. 11, Hurricane Katrina, Sandy Hook, Washington Navy Yard, et cetera. Others have already written voluminously about why this script needs to be retired. Things that happen for political reasons, and have political consequences, demand that we scrutinize them through a political lens.
Again, look at things logically:
Crying “politicization” is itself politicization – a way to advance whatever slate of politics favors the status quo. Often people invoke policy goals in order to get things done; what’s at stake is whether these tragedies should be regarded as irreducible lightning strikes or problems with potential solutions. I’m sympathetic to those who say that death is irreversible and specific, not “about” anything but itself. And yet we know that lessons and change can come out of horror – it seems irresponsible to blind ourselves to the past’s instruction. As these lethal incidents recur, echoing each other down the years, Americans should put their pieties on hold and honor human pain through actions, not just words. We should accept that reducing the body count might just fall within our power.
In short, we could work to make things better. The New York Times’ Frank Bruni argues that is rather important:
Let’s be clear: This was no more an attack just on LGBT 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.
Omar Mateen knew that:
We can assume – no, we can be sure – that he was lashing out at an America at odds with his darker, smaller, more oppressive mindset. The people inside Pulse were citizens of it. More to the point, they were emblems of it. In Pulse they found a refuge. In Pulse they found joy. To him they deserved neither. And he communicated that with an assault rifle and bullets.
There is a context here:
The Islamic State and its ilk are brutal to gay people, whom they treat in unthinkable ways. They throw gay people from rooftops. The footage is posted online. It’s bloodcurdling, but it’s not unique. In countries throughout the world, to be gay is to be in mortal danger. That’s crucial context for what happened in Orlando, and Orlando is an understandable prompt for questions about our own degrees of inclusion and fairness and whether we do all that we should to keep LGBT people safe. We don’t.
As Florida Gov. Rick Scott spoke publicly of his heartache on Sunday, I saw complaints on social media about his own lack of support for issues important to LGBT people. Those complaints have merit. But this isn’t a moment for identity politics, which could muddle the significance of the carnage. Yes, that carnage exposed the special vulnerability of LGBT Americans to violent extremists, recommending special levels of security. And there was a frightening coda to it on the opposite coast, in the Los Angeles area, where a man with an arsenal of weapons was arrested en route to gay pride festivities.
But the threat isn’t only to LGBT 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.
That means that Donald Trump, our new white-Christian nationalist, has it all wrong:
President Obama, speaking about the victims on Sunday afternoon, said: “The place where they were attacked is more than a nightclub. It is a place of solidarity and empowerment where people have come together to raise awareness, to speak their minds and to advocate for their civil rights. So this is a sobering reminder that attacks on any American, regardless of race, ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation, is an attack on all of us and on the fundamental values of equality and dignity that define us as a country.”
And this was Eric Garcetti, the Los Angeles mayor, at a news conference: “Today we know that we are targeted as Americans, because this is a society where we love broadly and openly, because we have Jews and Christians and Muslims and atheists and Buddhists marching together, because we are white, black, brown, Asian, Native American. The whole spectrum and every hue and every culture is here.”
It was a perfect description of the country I love. And it was an equally perfect description of what the Orlando gunman couldn’t bear.
Marcotte may be right. We do not fight this by blaming liberalism. “We fight it by embracing liberalism, and the values of equality, religious liberty, acceptance, and sexual freedom” – but then this is an election year. The arguments for more exclusion, not inclusion, will continue. But then the fifty dead are the gay dead, which complicates things. Once those on the right admit they shouldn’t have died, inclusion is in the air, so some good may come of this, even if it won’t bring back the dead. At least Donald Trump won’t be able to ride them to the White House.