I am struggling to understand the Orlando massacre. And that struggle is important. It is what can protect us from the knee-jerk characterizations being bandied about. In its race to get the story first, mainstream corporate media has crafted the spin as swiftly as possible and shaped the lens through which we see the news.
First it was a terrorist attack, plain and simple, because the killer had a Muslim background and pledged allegiance to Islamic State. Politicians like this lens, and both Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump agree on it. Their policy solutions might look different, but they aren’t really: Clinton wants to demonize Muslims abroad so we can justify dropping more bombs on them, while Trump wants to demonize Muslims here at home so he can justify banning their entry into the U.S.
But then we heard more details that just didn’t fit with this simplistic narrative. Omar Mateen, the shooter, was an employee of G4S, a global security firm with a reputation for employing racist staff. He was an American born of Afghan immigrants and had been investigated by the FBI twice before and cleared of suspicion. He had some admiration for the New York Police Department as evidenced by selfies he took while wearing NYPD shirts. He was a regular at Pulse, the gay bar where he carried out the horrific massacre. He even had briefly used a gay dating app. But his father said he was a homophobe who was once enraged at the sight of two men kissing. He beat his ex-wife. He was married to another woman at the time of the shooting and had a 3-year-old child with her. His current wife might have been an accomplice to the shooting. He obtained his weapons legally and appeared cool and collected during the massacre.
This story is so complex, with so many layers, that it does not fit within our black-and-white media and political narrative. CNN and Clinton would like this to be a straightforward story: a Muslim-American man was radicalized by Islamic State and carried out a terrorist attack. But Mateen does not fit into the reductive profiles we have built of would-be terrorists. So how to explain what happened on Saturday night in Orlando?
What we do know is that 49 human beings are dead. Forty-nine people, mostly Puerto Rican, mostly brown and a few black, mostly men and a few women, mostly queer. The victims were dancing the night away in a space that was familiar, where they could be themselves, inured—if momentarily—to the hateful rhetoric and bills sweeping through Republican-dominated state legislatures in recent years under the guise of “religious freedom,” and “bathroom safety.” The typical Orlando victim was also an outsider in relation to mainstream American society, reflected rarely in our pop culture except through harmful stereotypes. Many victims had foreign-sounding names and multiple intersecting identities: Latino or black, queer, pierced or tattooed or both, femme or butch or transgender.
I know a tiny bit of what it means to live with multiple intersecting identities. I’ve been an immigrant in the only two countries in which I have ever lived (United Arab Emirates and the USA). It can get confusing. But it is also rich and varied and a source of deep pride. I am a woman and have experienced sexism, sometimes amplified by anti-immigrant racism. My skin is brown and my name hard to pronounce. I’m not gay but if I were, that would be an added layer of complexity to my multiple identities. I’m not single and childless, but if I were, that would be another checkmark for going against the grain of expectations. Our media and our politicians do not like such complexity. It is hard to define; it is ephemeral and does not fit within the neat boxes that sell papers or garner votes.
We cannot make sense of the Orlando shooter just yet. Maybe some day we will know his actual motives. But we do know that vilifying and banning whole communities will impact the very people with whom the Orlando victims share common ground, as will expanding our futile “war on terror.”
But not everything is complex and hard to pin down. A few things stand out in stark clarity, chief among them the easy availability of weapons of war to any number of would-be criminals with any manner of motivation to spur them to kill. The AR-15 rifle, a variant of which the shooter reportedly used in the massacre, is cast as a “sporting rifle” and closely related to the military grade M16. It is widely available across the country and is in millions of American homes today. Want to curb gun violence? Curb guns.
Another aspect of the massacre that stands out in stark relief is how the war against immigrants (Latino, Asian, Muslim and others) here in the U.S. is a mirror image of the wars the U.S. is fighting in the Arab and Muslim world and in other spots on the globe. Our political interference in Latin America has created such instability and violence that it is pushing people to escape poverty and violence via migration. Our fighting in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya and Somalia has fomented similar instability and violence, causing millions to flee. Those who flee face more persecution, hunger and brutality. These wars are futile and inhumane. They are designed to divide us from one another. We must reject them.
And finally, we need to open our eyes to the similarity of extremist beliefs among fundamentalists. Islamic State gleefully took credit for the Orlando massacre (although U.S. authorities have no evidence the attack was directed from an external source). Islamic State has built its bloody reputation in part on the brutal persecution of LGBT Arabs. Hate-filled anti-gay rhetoric emanates from Western extremist religious groups as well, uniting Christian and Muslim fundamentalists in their homophobia. The rest of us ought to be united, regardless of our racial, religious, gender identity or sexual orientation, in seeing each other as human beings composed of myriad and complex layers. It is the best antidote to propaganda and the push for war, votes and ratings.