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This Was Not About Islam: Getting It Wrong About the Orlando Massacre

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Though it seems to fit the political agendas of both Republicans and Democrats, the assertion that the shooter responsible for the Orlando massacre was motivated by the Islamic State (ISIS) is certainly wrong. This conclusion is supported by the recent testimony of CIA Chief John Brennan before the Senate intelligence committee. He said that the CIA has found no connection between Omar Mateen, the man who gunned down over one hundred people at a gay nightclub in Orlando Florida on 13 June 2016, and any  terrorist group. Thus, it makes more sense that this was a hate crime against gay people facilitated by gun laws that are demonstrably not in the interest of the citizens of the United States.

If this is so, why would Mateen claim on a 911 call, and later on a call to a television station, that he was slaughtering all these people in the name of ISIS? Can we take him literally on this? I don’t think so. Just ask yourself, Why would an alleged ISIS-inspired radical “Islamist” shoot up a gay nightclub full of Puerto Ricans?

Here is my theory to explain those phone calls and the ISIS claim. In Mateen’s mind, connecting his slaughter to ISIS was emotionally satisfying. He could convince himself that this political rationale would bring him praise rather than shame within the small and violent “Muslim” subculture with which he seemed to identify. However, his target belies this claim. It is far fetched that ISIS would select a gay nightclub in a middle-sized Florida city as a target. No, this was a personal act on Mateen’s part, motivated by a hatred of gay people, perhaps stemming from his own conflicted sexual feelings. However, if he explained his actions as an act against gays, later investigation might discover those conflicted feels, and that would certainly lead to shame in the sight of that same subculture. So he identified the whole thing with ISIS as a kind of false trail – a cover-up, if you will, to delude himself and others.

There are at least two other unnamed accomplices in this slaughter. One is the Christian right who have long sought to promote an anti-gay climate across the nation. As ACLU staff attorney Chase Strangio noted soon after the massacre, “the Christian Right has introduced 200 anti-LGBT bills in the last six months.”  He concluded that it was not Islam, but rather 
“Christian homophobia” that contributed to the Orlando tragedy.

A second accomplice is even more culpable, and that accomplice is the nation’s criminally inadequate gun laws. Mateen had easy access to a weapon that could do maximum damage in the crowded, confined space of the Orlando nightclub. This easy access to guns is the common denominator that places Mateen’s action squarely in line with the hundreds of other gun deaths, singular and multiple, that have occurred in the U.S. in recent years.

Awful Responses

The politicized responses to Mateen’s awful act have themselves been awful.

Donald Trump unashamedly used the tragedy for political profit. “We’ve got problems,” he said and then identified these with Muslims both at home and abroad. He repeated his demand that Muslims be banned from entering the U.S. He also implicitly blamed the Muslim community now living in the country for recent acts of violence by individual Muslims. Trump made this charge based on the assumption that the American Muslim community is not turning in the alleged terrorists in their midst. Actually, when it comes to the Orlando incident, this is not true. The authorities had been alerted about Omar Mateen multiple times, both from Muslim and non-Muslim sources, but at that time the authorities did not judge him enough of a threat to warrant arrest. Trump made no reference to this fact. One might also wonder how far Mr. Trump wants to take this proposed community responsibility. Does he expect the American Christian community to start taking responsibility for shooters coming from their ranks? After all, they account for most of these kind of slaughters.

In any case, Trump’s reaction was selective at best. The presumptive Republican candidate simply ignored the possibility that the Orlando massacre could have been a hate crime against gays. He certainly made no mention of the need for much stricter gun control.

It should be noted that Trump’s position melds with that of the more fanatical U.S. Islamophobes, a good number of whom are, unfortunately, also fanatical Zionists. Take for instance the words of Daniel Pipes: “Omar Mateen’s obvious motives are almost ignored. … It’s time for the authorities to focus on Islamism as the problem, rather than bizarrely insisting Islam has nothing to do with it.” This is just typical distortion on Pipes’s part. What is truly bizarre is the attempt to conflate Mateen’s insanity with the entire religion of 1.6 billion mostly law-abiding Muslims.

Pipes was joined in his distortion by none other than Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “We are all shocked by the terrible massacre in Orlando,” Netanyahu proclaimed, adding, “Islamic terror threatens the entire world and all enlightened nations need to unite in order to fight against it.” It goes without saying that he ignored his own country’s brand of terrorism.

And then there was the response of Hillary Clinton. The majority of her remarks right after the massacre were not that different from Trump’s. She concentrated on the need to destroy ISIS even though its leaders were certainly more in the dark about Mateen’s violent potential than were local authorities in Florida. Like Trump, Clinton was maneuvering for political advantage here. She too seems uninterested in the fact that the vast number of these murder sprees in the U.S. over the last couple of decades have been carried out not Muslims, but by white Christian males. In addition, it was only after much talk about “jihadists” that she threw in a brief reference to a truly relevant topic – public access to assault rifles.

The only reason that U.S. politicians can get away with pinning the violence in Orlando on Muslims is because they, and their constituents, live in ignorance and denial. The truth is that most Americans rely for their news and opinions on media sources which are at best shallow and at worse are manipulative and propagandizing. Often, these media sources are bereft of logical thinking as well.

Unfortunately, your average media editors and reporters do not know much more than their audiences when it comes to non-local affairs. They get their information from the government, politicized “talking heads,” biased think-tanks, and news or “wire” service sources. This leaves all of us open to unwarranted exaggeration and fear, as well as the deemphasizing of selective topics deemed too politically or socially “sensitive.”

We should always keep in mind that the United States is not a democracy of individual citizens. It is a democracy of competing interest groups which use lobbies to pressure government (local, state and federal) as well as media to substitute their parochial interests for community or national interests. Presently, fear and distortion generated by neoconservative, Zionist and Islamophobe interest groups are influencing the storyline, the “spin,” on the sort of violence we have seen in Orlando. The National Rifle Association – that is, the gun lobby – is successfully pushing to minimize the issue of inadequate gun control.

And there you have it. If these interest groups prevail, the proper and needed steps to deal with the violence epidemic in the U.S. will not be taken. That means more carnage is in America’s future no matter who ends up in the White House.

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Lawrence Davidson is professor of history at West Chester University in West Chester, PA.

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