It has been a terrible week-and-a-half, and everybody knows that we must now ask ourselves tough questions. After the massacre in Orlando, and after the murder of Jo Cox, everyone knows, everyone keeps saying that we must ask ourselves tough questions: about guns and violence and the holding of intolerant beliefs.
However it seems to me that too many of those in the public eye who demand such questions, already feel like they have the answer. A question you know the answer to is not a tough question.
The left, in reaction to Orlando, already know that America needs reform of its gun regulations. When they demand ‘tough questions’, they mean an interrogation not of themselves, but of the (on this one issue) libertarian right. The right, in reaction to Orlando, already knows that the killer was guided by Islamic beliefs which demanded that he gun down American civilians. When they demand ‘tough questions’, they mean an interrogation, not of themselves, but of the multiculturalist, tolerate-our-differences standpoint of the left.
The left (or ‘liberals’ if you prefer, or ‘progressives’; you know the dichotomy/dialectic which I describe) knows that the creed of Islam is innocent, and the right (conservative) knows that the availability of firearms is innocent. Thus, no progress will be made towards understanding the motivations behind hate-crime or towards preventing those motivations’ enactment. Not until both start to ask the genuinely tough question.
Which is: what if we’re wrong about this?
Both reductive narratives of Orlando — that it was a failure of gun control, that it was an expression of Islamic creed — are challenged by the multiplicity of extraneous factors in the Orlando shooting, not least the fact that both could be true. I am (and this will not surprise anyone who knows me) far more comfortable taking aim, as it were, at the firearms lobby than at the tenets of a religion which has over a billion overwhelmingly peaceful, loving followers. Followers who find in their faith a spiritual impulse to which my own lived experience does not offer me access. I am further discomfited by the ease with which criticism of Islam can become complicit in racial criticisms of Arabian people. To avoid any such complicity I hereafter refer interchangeably to Islam, Christianity and ‘Abrahamic’ faith — an umbrella term for Islam, Christianity and Judaism; religions which although non-identical are rather more than kin, and which are connected by a complex relationship between their contemporary, progressive or tolerant adherents, and certain intolerant strands in their ancient teachings and less open-minded cultural practices — here it is the explicit homophobia of (some of) those teachings and cultures which is relevant.
Homosexuality and homophobia is the first most obvious complication of either the religious or regulatory analyses of Orlando; the shooting’s apparently homophobic (hate crime) motivations give us a third Tough Question to ask — one which cannot be sundered from or entirely identified with Omar Mateen’s post-hoc claim to affiliation with ISIS. Seeing Mateen’s actions as ‘simply’ homophobic is fatally complicated by the religious connotations of that homophobia, and by the peripheral presence of ISIS, who almost certainly did not direct Mateen’s actions but whose existence he acknowledged in the slaughter’s aftermath; that existence may have helped him to submit to a violent impulse which he would have otherwise conquered.
Another snag in the wool of the Islamophobic analysis of Orlando comes when it is used, as it is often used, to justify a white-supremacist, anti-immigration response. The facts of Orlando — the awkward, un-elidable facts — do not permit this. Omar Mateen was an American man, and his victims were overwhelmingly non-white. Less so than, say, San Bernardino, this attack is incompatible with the expectation that any shooting by a brown man on American soil must be by a foreign-born assailant with white Americans in his sites. (Even San Bernardino matches the archetype imperfectly: Syed Farook was a US resident, his victims were racially diverse)
We are left with at least four premises which an asker of Tough Questions must be prepared to incorporate, if their intention is to produce a theory of everything which explains the Orlando massacre completely.
One: The Orlando shooter was almost certainly a homophobe, and this shooting was almost certainly motivated by homophobia. Tell it like it is.
This is not simple (do you notice a theme?). There are strong indications that Omar Mateen himself may have been a gay or bisexual man. This has led to feasible but unprovable speculation that his homophobia stemmed in some regard from the incommensurability of his religious or cultural upbringing (his father, though condemning Mateen’s actions, has done so by saying that it is for God to punish homosexuals) with his sexuality.
The relevance of sexuality in the shooting at Pulse, an LGBTQ+ venue, seems thankfully to have been recognised in the days following the shooting — perhaps because of those rumours concerning Mateen’s own sexual identity. But in the immediate aftermath of the killings, there was a remarkable media rush to categorise Orlando as ‘terrorist’ rather than ‘homophobic’. It was the intransigence of the British (Murdoch) media on this point which led to Owen Jones walking out of Sky News’ reaction broadcast. The President of the USA was thankfully prepared to be more explicit: visiting Orlando shortly after, Obama was firm in acknowledging that the targets of Mateen’s ‘hate’ were the ‘LGBT community’.
Two: Homophobia can be nurtured and enabled by Abrahamic scripture. This doesn’t necessarily make the attack ‘terrorist’. Although ISIS were quick to claim it for its terrorist potential, it seems to me that the terrorist credentials of Orlando are far more questionable than its ‘hate-crime’ credentials. Mateen’s actions may have been terrorism one step removed; influenced and enabled by the acts of political terrorists, but in themselves intended simply to kill, rather than to provoke political division.
Three: The shooter bought an automatic weapon at a gun store. This shooting could not have happened in this fashion under British or Australian gun laws.
The weapon used was a Sig Sauer MCX AR15-style semi-automatic assault rifle. AR15-style rifles were also used in San Bernardino and Sandy Hook. This type of gun was banned (to an extent) in the United States under Bill Clinton’s administration in 1994 — however the legislation was allowed to expire in 2004, and attempts to renew it in 2013 were blocked. Sixty senators (44 republican, 15 democrat, one independent) voted against it; senators who must now ask themselves some very tough questions indeed. These shootings — all of these shootings — can therefore to some extent be seen as taking advantage of a new, post-9/11 era of radically deregulated firearms markets in the United States; not merely a continuation of an age-old libertarian impulse which is innate to the national spirit of the Union. As Trevor Noah pointed out on the Daily Show, machine guns are illegal. There is already a national apparatus for partial gun regulation, and it has been weakened from a previous position under which Orlando, San Bernardino and Sandy Hook could not have come to pass the way they did.
Four: The Orlando shooter was American. Born in America. As American as a white man with an English or Germanic name born in the United States. No immigration legislation could have prevented this shooting.
The victims of this attack were overwhelmingly Latino/Puerto Rican Americans*. There is therefore no validity to an analysis which treats the shooter as Afghan, immigrant or non-American but treats the victims as racially-unspecified Americans. That is, any commentator who treats the victims as demographically identical to the white American ruling caste, and the shooter as innately other, is not asking any tough question of themselves.
Days after Omar Mateen slaughtered fifty of his peers in Florida, a very different killing occurred outside a public library in Northern England.
Labour MP Jo Cox — a 42-year-old white woman — was stabbed and shot by a 52-year-old white man (not religiously affiliated so far as I am aware) called Thomas Mair. This seems to have been an explicitly political assassination; Mair was a fascist (a term we should not avoid using if the shoe fits) and Cox a determined campaigner for the rights of Syrian refugees. Mair gave his name in court as ‘Death to traitors, freedom for Britain’ — a propaganda act so obviously potent that I shudder to repeat it. But even if the courtroom should not be a soapbox, you can’t ignore the facts. You can’t efface the hate.
The murder of Jo Cox, which occurred after I had already written many of the observations about Orlando presented above, asks only a comparatively minor question when considered in the light of the gun control debate: if Thomas Mair’s firearm was, as has been reported, homemade from a length of pipe, then how does one legislate for this? One thing which cannot be permitted when considering these two crimes side-by-side is for Mair’s regulation-evading homemade gun to contribute to counterarguments against preventing the sale of automatic or semi-automatic weapons across the counter in the United States. Lest it need repeating, the patrons of Pulse nightclub in Orlando were mown down by semi-automatic fire. Omar Mateen’s crime could not have been committed with Thomas Mair’s pistol.
However Cox’s assassination is consistent with the Orlando murders in another way: it reminds us and demands of us that we do not let the nature of its motivating hatred be effaced in a rush to comprehend her killing, and their slaughter, only through the lenses of pre-existing platitudes.
The causes of the Orlando shooting, contrary to the conclusions of this NYT article’s otherwise calm and coherent call to recognise their complexity, should not be resignedly dismissed as unknowable. They are complex and intersectional, but not opaque. They are difficult, not impossible to discern. The validity of a nuanced and partially relativist position should not be allowed to impart validity onto an infinitely relativist position which treats any attempt at causal analysis as a grubbing for ‘consolation’. It is part of the need to appreciate complexity which must bring us to acknowledge the potential harm caused to conflicted minds by intolerant Abrahamic scriptures, and the harm caused by refusing to acknowledge the damaged apprehension of sexuality in this killer’s mind which — though it will never be clear to us in detail — was the cause of fifty people’s deaths.
Thomas Mair, meanwhile, was, so far as we can tell, a fascist. He supported a white supremacist South African group. He seems to have associated himself with Britain First (who, much like ISIS with Mateen, show little evidence as yet of having associated with him reciprocally — this line of enquiry by leftist blogger Another Angry Voice may or may not provide evidence to the contrary).
Unlike ISIS, Britain First is not a military organisation. Most of its affiliates are (like Donald Trump supporters) probably economically deprived white people who find immigration a plausible explanation for their hardship. Most of them do not shoot guns, least of all at compassionate, popular white English politicians. But the link exists, and is relevant; just like Mateen’s links to Abrahamic faith are relevant. Just like Mateen’s seemingly conflicted sexuality is relevant. Mair’s acts, like Mateen’s, are unresolvable by recourse to the phrase ‘lone wolf’ — an explanation which is actually an effacement, a sleight-of-eye dissembling that splutters out: he did this by himself, because he was a predator born. Don’t make me ask Tough Questions.
Neither Jo Cox’s murder nor the Pulse massacre are adequately explained by terms such as ‘lone wolf’ or blasé implications about the killer’s mental illness. It does not behove the political left to ignore Omar Mateen’s religion. It does not behove the political right to ignore Thomas Mair’s right-wing zealotry. It does not behove the political right to treat all Muslims as potential Omar Mateens. It does not behove the political left to treat all right-wingers as potential Thomas Mairs.
Just as it is useless and dangerous to attempt to corner incomprehensible hatred in a single, reductive motivation, so too is it useless and dangerous to let the complexity of these motivations discourage us from scrutinising them. The innate tribalism and intolerance in the Abrahamic scriptures can be examined without offering insult to any human who finds joy and fellow-feeling in those scriptures’ communities. The bigotry of Thomas Mair, and Omar Mateen, can be considered in the light of its apparent links to xenophobia and internalised homophobia without effacing — that word, again and again — the social motivations which might, might have led a 52-year-old Englishman to take up arms for fascism, or the inner turmoil between sexual impulse and repressive upbringing which might, might have led a Muslim American to take up arms against his countrymen and women in a gay club. None of this search for reason replaces the need for a fearless investigation into the availability of instruments of slaughter. That more pragmatic investigation does not replace the search for reason, either.