The massacre on June 12, 2016 at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida has been called the worst case of domestic terrorism in American history. After each such event there is of course a lot of discussion about lessons to be drawn from it. Some of the alleged lessons concern interpretation—what are the causes of the event? Other lessons are practical—what can be done to prevent repetitions? Both questions are not easily answered. Causes: In the present moment, given the ongoing assault on America by radical Islamists since 9/11, one is first moved to see the event as yet another instance of that assault. Difficulty: The shooter, Omar Mateen, a Muslim of Afghan background, was known to dabble in Jihadist ideology, and who (on social media, no less) announced his allegiance to ISIS as he began the murders. But it was quickly clear that here was a deeply disturbed individual with a particular hatred of homosexuals, with a personality disorder basically unrelated to religion and only later legitimated by the latter. Prevention: The attacks on 9/11 were highly organized by al-Qaeda, from its remote headquarters in Afghanistan. ISIS is very different from al-Qaeda and increasingly recruits “lone wolf” terrorists via the Internet. Mateen evidently was a case of this. It is much more difficult to locate and neutralize an isolated individual glued to his computer.
Not surprisingly, the lessons drawn from the event depend on the political and ideological interests of those who make them. Some are linked to religion, some not. Some can be subjected to a “value-free” analysis of their empirical assumptions (in journalism this is called “fact checking”). Others are based on normative assumptions rather than on factual ones. I will mostly do the former here, selecting from a wide range of sources in the secular media augmented, by Religion News Service and other religious media. [I’m sure that here and there, so to speak, in brackets, I will let my own normative judgments slip through.]
Donald Trump, as usual, drew lessons that had little to do with facts. His main message was “I told you so”—that is, about the danger of Islam. He reiterated his policy of not allowing Muslims to enter the U.S. and of increasing surveillance of mosques. Never mind that neither policy would have stopped the Orlando shooter. Trump did deviate from the general Republican line by expressing sympathy for gays (“I will fight for you”) and conceding that some tougher gun control may be called for. But he also repeated an earlier claim that terrorist attacks would be less deadly if more (or all?) putative victims were armed. Barack Obama, also as usual, said all the right things about opposing Islamic extremism while respecting the rights of Muslim as well as LGBT Americans. But both he and Hillary Clinton emphasized stricter gun controls, though more elaborate bureaucratic procedures around gun purchases are unlikely to do much as compared to the politically more difficult move of prohibiting civilians from owning assault weapons. [Between now and November we will see how far both campaigns will follow the conventional wisdom that there is a push toward the center as a general election gets closer. Will Trump make further liberal gestures and restrain his penchant for gutter language? “Guns for Gays”? Will Clinton make more hawkish moves in foreign policy while embracing the domestic agenda of the hard left? “Drones for the Baltics” and “Wall Street under Martial Law”?]
Then there is the National Rifle Association, which would put the second amendment on the right of citizens to bear arms ahead of all other items in the list of rights. For reasons I don’t fully understand, almost everyone in Washington is terrified of the NRA. On June 14, 2016, The Hill came out with a real gem: A spokesperson for the NRA asserted that the Orlando tragedy was caused by the political correctness of the Obama administration, which led the FBI to break off the investigation of Omar Mateen after an initial tipoff that he was a security risk. [There is an odd similarity between the extreme positions of the NRA and of the pro-choice movement—respectively, the adamant opposition to any limits on the right to bear arms (including rocket launchers?), and the equally adamant opposition to any limits on the right to abortion (even at the moment when birth is occurring?). Is there enough moral sense in American society to make both positions politically counter-productive?]
Also on June 14, 2016, Religion News Service had good coverage of different religious reactions to the Orlando event. The majority reaction from organized religion was outrage and condemnation of the atrocity, while expressing solidarity with gays, and with the vast Muslim community innocent of this kind of violence. The (Episcopal) National Cathedral in Washington (the closest we have to Westminster Abbey, despite our separation of church and state) tolled its bells in honor of the victims. The Roman Catholic Archbishop of Chicago made a statement expressing similar sentiments. The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, a banner institution of Evangelical Protestantism (not known for love of gays), sent a “rapid response team” to assist surviving victims and their families in any way possible. There were local meetings all over the country, bringing together Protestant and Catholic clergy, rabbis, imams and ordinary lay people to express empathy and moral support.
Of course there would be ugly exceptions. RNS reported on a sermon by a Baptist preacher in Sacramento (not exactly in the Bible Belt!). Quote: “Are you sad that fifty pedophiles were killed today? [The time difference between Florida and California made it possible for the news to reach the latter in time for a Sunday sermon.] I think that’s great! I think that helps society! I think Orlando, Florida, is a little bit safer tonight. If we lived in a righteous government, they should round them all up and put them against a firing wall, and blow their brains out.”
I have not turned to the Internet for Buddhist and Hindu reactions. But since my gig here is supposed to be a global focus on religion, I think I ought to mention what one often hears from adherents of those two faiths—that religious violence is due to monotheism, the supposedly angry God of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Buddhism does preach compassion to its followers, but many of them manage to ignore the sermons. Saffron-clad monks have cheered on the campaign against Hindus in Sri Lanka, and continue to do so in Myanmar as the Muslim minority is ferociously persecuted. As to Hinduism, the increasing violence by Hindu nationalists against Muslims and Christians falsifies claims for the alleged pacifism of that religion. Mahatma Gandhi is a national icon of the Indian state, but many of its citizens are inspired by the cult of Kali Durga, the goddess who dances on a mountain of skulls.
But one of the most curious reactions by a faith community, also reported by RNS, is by an organization of atheists. A spokesperson complained, “Why does no one ever call us?”, when “thoughts and prayers” are offered to the victims of a large atrocity. For sure: One does not have to be religious to feel empathy and try to comfort. But prayers? I have difficulty imagining what an atheist “rapid response team” would say to survivors and families: “Don’t grieve. There is no God”?
Various groups claimed victim status in the Orlando event. The most immediately evident one was the gay community. The nightclub attacked was widely known as a gay gathering place, and the shooter was reputed to hate homosexuals. In current gay discourse this particular event was part of the much wider phenomenon of “homophobia”. It made sense that a large demonstration took place in front of the iconic Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street in New York City, a gay bar where in 1969 a group of patrons beat up and threw out the cops who had periodically arrested and blackmailed them. This event marked the beginning of the modern gay movement. [In 1969 my office at the New School for Social Research was a few blocks from the Stonewall Inn. I resonated with the anonymous patron who shouted “enough!” and started the riot. This was long before the gay movement morphed into the “LGBT community” which in its turn harasses people who do not agree with its ideology. I suppose, given the overheated climate of the American culture war, I should emphasize that there is no moral equivalence between corrupt cops, LGBT activists and mass murderers.]
On June 14, 2016, the online Huffington Post drew attention to the fact that the early reports about the Orlando massacre characterized it only as an anti-gay event, which it clearly was, while not mentioning the Latino aspect. The event was actually billed as a “Latino night”. “The Pulse”, as a gay place, wanted to reach out to that ethnicity. Not all those who attended were Hispanics (some gringo lesbians like salsa music), but the names of the victims were mostly Latino. The situation changed after the Huffington Post, which carried a photo of a sign reading (in Spanish) “We are Orlando”. Latino organizations from all over the U.S. made statements of outrage and solidarity. This is quite remarkable, as Hispanic culture is not traditionally tolerant of homosexuality. It is no accident that machismo has become a common term of American English. I am reminded of a saying in Spain, hay que ser hombre/”a man has to be a man”, definitely not implying gay gender. [I wonder whether this has anything to do with the centuries of Muslim rule on the Iberian peninsula?] The Mexican-American writer Richard Rodriguez has written eloquently about the “family values” he grew up with in California and the wrenching experience of coming out as gay in later years. See his moving autobiographical books Hunger for Memory (1982) and Argument with my Mexican Father (1992).
American Muslims strongly condemned the massacre. The shooter’s last-minute statement on social media, that he was acting in the name of ISIS, was termed un-Islamic. But there was also anxiety about an anti-Muslim backlash. This anxiety was supposed to be caused by a general climate of “Islamophobia”, a victimological category. Thus, paradoxically, Muslims could also claim to be victims of Omar Mateen’s crime. Yet there is no reason to doubt the sincerity of the revulsion against such atrocities felt by the majority of Muslims in the US (and in many other places). [One should recall that every chapter of the Koran begins with the sentence “In the name of Allah, the compassionate, who acts compassionately”.]
Perhaps one other “faith community” should be mentioned: the mental health community. Of course there are empirical grounds to propose that many mass murderers are mentally deranged. A massive government program of compulsory preventative testing and treatment is not a promising policy. I don’t have an informed opinion about the efficacy of psychotherapeutic approaches to surviving victims, family members and the bereaved. [I tend to be skeptical about the therapeutic faith institutionalized in America. Every faith in America breaks up into many denominations, including this one. Some are more empirically grounded than others.]
Lessons of Orlando? One does not have to be a postmodern theorist to debunk most of the “narratives” described above. One does not have to be a believer (as I am) in Max Weber’s idea of a “value-free” social science, to separate facts from fantasies in the spectrum of “lessons” drawn from the terrible Orlando atrocity. If (heaven forbid) I had to craft U.S. policy on this issue, I would proceed cautiously. Let me suggest that, separating foreign from domestic implications of Orlando, a sensible starting point would be: To seek non-partisan agreement for a ban on civilian ownership of assault weapons—to be deployed more freely in fighting radical Islamism in the Middle East, but not needed even by the most ardent hunters to shoot ducks in Oklahoma.