Making sense of the Orlando Massacre

By David Brax, post-doc at the Centre for European Research (CERGU), and the Department of Philosophy, Linguistics and the Theory of Science, University of Gothenburg


Before we begin, I want to brief you on the content of this rather long post: It basically states that we don’t yet know exactly what the Orlando massacre was about. There are a number of factors that may or may not ultimately contribute to our understanding of what happened and why. The post is also about how to handle the complexity and the uncertainty that it brings, without undermining the support we give to targeted communities.


Homophobic hate crimes. Mass shootings. Lone wolf terrorism. Jihadism and radicalisation. Mental illness. Toxic masculinity. The U.S. gun problem. The targeting of the latino population.


There is no lack of context in which to put the terrible massacre that took place at the gay nightclub Pulse in Orlando last Saturday night. In order to cope with the initial chock and subsequent grief, we tend to cling to certain favoured explanations, and to find some form of safety in the strength of our reactions and our convictions. Whatever the shooter, identified as one Omar Mateen, wanted to accomplish by this, he shall not succeed. The targeted community should have the unconditional support and undivided loyalty of every right-thinking person. The root of the crime must be dealt with forcibly and swiftly to minimize the risk that something like this happens again. If only that root was easily identified, possible to isolate and easy to counteract.


The murderer is dead, but his story is becoming more complex with every day that goes by. As I am writing this, footage of Mateen from a documentary about the BP oil spill is being broadcast by the CNN. He does not come across as the “typical” jihadist, but then again, the typical jihadist exists primarily as a cultural stereotype – as an agent entirely distinct from the society that he targets. New information arrives daily together with further context and with it comes rumours and speculations in the media by pundits as well as a range of experts, brought in to provide explanations based on particular aspects of the crime.


This is what we as hate crime researchers and scholars must do: provide backgrounds, theories, contexts and patterns with which the particular event may fit. When asked to comment, we tend to describe similar events and point to long- and short-term trends, variations between countries and over time. As an expert in the field, you are expected to generalize confidently. But in complex cases and at early stages you should probably resist that expectation, at least if you can do so responsibly. We should keep in mind that every case is the consequence of a unique and complex set of circumstances, and that they occur in different, sometimes even conflicting, patterns.


What is the Orlando massacre an example of? What patterns is it a part of? There is a tendency for the official story to settle on one main narrative and to let that guide the ensuing discussion, which in turn governs how it’s employed in policy settings, political campaigns, and in how history is written. When the policys invoked are controversial, people takes sides and favour different narratives. In the media, the Orlando massacre seems increasingly being called a “shooting”, rather than an “attack”, and thus it is put in the context of other mass-shootings that have taken place in the U.S in recent years. The discussion, then, tend to turn to gun control, possibly to mental health issues, or to issues regarding toxic masculinity. It simultaneously tends to move away from other aspects, such as organisation and ideology.


There are many aspects to be covered. When the news broke, the main focus was on possible ties to international terrorism, and to ISIS in particular. The immediate thoughts went to Brussels and Paris. While these ties are now being questioned on good grounds, the context and the influence of possible radicalisation cannot be disregarded, at least not yet. Mateens statements, the on-site pledge of allegiance to ISIS, does of course not prove that the terror organisation was involved in planning this in any way, indeed, they do not even prove that Mateen was a committed Muslim, or that religion is where he found motivation for his action, yet this provides a piece of the puzzle. When we are describing crimes in terms of what pattern they fit in, what do we require in order to count an event as an example of Islamist violence? Clearly, grouping it with other homophobic attacks, or with other mass-shootings does not preclude it from being related to that set of attacks as well.


One narrative that sailed up recently, based on the fact that he had visited the club before, interacted with people there, and had been using gay dating apps, suggests that Mateen was a closeted homosexual. This possibility does not undermine the homophobic aspects or terroristic intent of his actions: it may merely provide the relevant background for how those things came to be instantiated in this case. His actions, whatever their more precise origins, are sill parts of a larger pattern of homophobia and homophobic hate crimes that despite decades of progress due to the tireless struggle of the LGBTQ community still pervades societies across the globe.


There is, of course, an yet to be resolved question about the origins of that homophobia. Given that the situation for LGBTQ-people are improving in general, is there a sense in which the homophobia that made Mateen commit this crime was somehow “imported”? This is a tricky line of inquiry, and it would certainly be hypocritical to condemn an action expressing homophobia simply because it can be traced from a “different” culture if we don’t simultaneously condemn more “homegrown” versions. Besides, very little suggests that Mateen was primarily entrenched in the culture of his parents’ country of origin. It is possible that an instant “radicalisation” for which he was primed by experience, pushed him over the edge and provided “inspiration” for his violence in this instance. That still does not mean that this was a case of Islamist terrorism and nothing else.


Individualizing the perpetrator without losing track of patterns: Admitting that events are the outcome of complex interactions of factors shouldn’t lead to individualization or pathologization to the point where patterns and structures become invisible. Indeed, it is important to realise that patterns are distributed among individuals, and individuals are subject to a complex set of influences.


It is often pointed out that the media tends to individualize and pathologize offenders when they are white and to generalize when the shooter is black (thug) or muslim (terrorist). There are some indications that this case is being treated differently. By admitting the complexity of the case, we are not necessarily decontextualizing the problem: rather, we should be admitting that Mateen was “one of us”, and that his actions are due to problems that are intrinsic to a society that is ours.

In Åsne Seierstads book about the Norwegian right-wing terrorist and mass-murderer Breivik, Breivik is described as a “failure”. As someone who has failed continuously in life, who blames society and is out for revenge and to make an imprint on the world. Mateen seem to exhibit similar traits, as evidenced by recent news that he searched Facebook for news about his actions even as he was carrying them out. Perhaps we have an example here of narcissistic “toxic masculinity” in dangerous combination with personal failures and humiliation. This also seems to be the sort of person that extremist organisations like ISIS may hold an appeal for. Such psychological factors, of course, do not undermine the islamophobia of Breivik or the Homophobia of Mateen as equally potent explanatory factors. They just paint a fuller picture of how those attitudes came to be held and led to violent action.


A complex interaction of factors: While the Orlando massacre may be an example of any or all of the above-mentioned problems, actual events are explained by the confluence of factors. None of the factors may have been sufficient to cause Mateen to commit this heinous crime, and it is possible that even the combination of these factors may not suffice as an explanation. Further factors may be needed. The fact that Mateen was a Muslim with roots in Afghanistan may, of course, play some role in the explanation of what happened. But it is far from clear how. Afghanistan is arguably a more homophobic society on average than the US, so perhaps Mateens homophobia has partly cultural origins. But it is also a fact that being a Muslim in the US means you have to deal with abuse, discrimination, profiling and constant suspicion – this in turn can contribute to a sense of being betrayed and short-changed by society – a sentiment shared with many perpetrators of mass-shootings regardless of colour, creed or ethnicity.

Claiming it: None of this, mind, is about what group could justifably “claim” the event. It is clear that the LGBTQ-community was targeted. Claiming that it was also an attack on “all of us” need not, and should not, however, be an attempt to claim “ownership” of the story. What it should mean is that the safety and well-being of the LGBTQ-community is a concern for all of us. An attack targeting that community is an attack that concerns the larger society that it is a part of.

To conclude: We can, and must, pursue all these lines of inquiry in order to understand complex social events: We can recognize and acknowledge the patterns, but still investigate the individual nature of the event in order to understand how those patterns arise from different cases. Our commitment to stopping hate crimes against LGBTQ people, international “islamist” terrorism, mass-shootings, toxic masculinity, marginalisation etc. should not depend on which of these factors we hold to be most important in explaining what happened in Orlando.

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