by Charles M. Blow
The massacre in Orlando, where 49 people were gunned down at an L.G.B.T. nightclub and dozens of others were wounded, came at the hands of a coward and a monster, but make no mistake: This was our monster.
The shooter, 29-year-old Omar Mateen, was born and raised in America. He killed other Americans using at least one American-made gun — including an assault rifle — that he purchased legally from an American gun store, even after having been investigated twice by America’s top law enforcement agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, for terror-related concerns.
As much as it seems moral and right to deprive this shooter of the attention he surely craved for his act of morbid depravity, and to focus the lens solely on the victims of this tragedy and their families and friends, it is important to understand how this thing, this uniquely American thing — an epidemic of mass shooting — made them victims. It’s important to understand, as best as can be discerned, the influences and apparatuses that allowed this to happen on American soil … again.
It seems almost callous and calculating to divert attention to the political dimension of this, but this tragedy was — by dint of timing and magnitude — politicized even before the blood dried and the dead were named. It was one of the deadliest mass killings in United States history and comes during one of the most bizarre — and consequential — elections in United States history. It is, regrettably, political.
The task now is to make sure that the debate is honest and true and bends toward the better, instead of settling into our status quo standoff — or worse, distorting facts in a way that is detrimental.
This was both an act of domestic terror and a hate crime, but it is ours and it demands that we consider our policies — foreign and war policy, antiterror policy, gun policy — and our cultural toxicities, including our toxic political culture, toxic male culture and toxic anti-L.G.B.T. culture.
It has been reported that Mateen visited the bar that became the scene of his carnage many times over many years, even taking his wife along on at least one visit. Was he casing the place, or was he there for other, more intimate reasons? It’s not clear at this point. He is also reported to have been on mobile apps that men use to meet other men. Was he looking for information or for a match? Not clear.
Was he a self-loathing closeted man somewhere on the queer spectrum who targeted people who personified his conflict? Not clear. In a series of tweets Sunday, the Miami Herald reporter David Ovalle revealed that according to “one of Mateen’s ex-coworkers” Mateen had made homophobic and racist comments. His ex-wife has said that during their brief marriage, which she describes as abusive, she questioned whether he was “totally straight,” although even her suspicions relied on homophobic stereotypes. None of this is conclusive, of course, but it raises questions whose answers would have a direct impact on motive.
Studies have shown that homophobia can sometimes be an acting out of an intent to control the homophobe’s own same-sex desires, that to oppress or silence queerness in others is a perverted attempt to silence it in oneself. I’m not saying that was Mateen’s motivation, simply that this phenomenon is a very real one.
What is indisputable is that Mateen specifically targeted the L.G.B.T. community in one of its safest spaces, and did so on a specific night — “Latin night” — and that must remain at the forefront of our inquiry as details emerge and motives are assigned.
While our society surely does not treat L.G.B.T. people as barbarically as some others, disdain is still present in the belief that identities that are not strictly hetero-normative are immoral, corrosive and corruptive, and violate the laws of nature and the commands of God. Until we rid our society of this rigid and wrongheaded thinking, we apply pressure on citizens not to walk openly and lovingly in their own truths, and we give cover to the darkest possible objections from people like Mateen.
In addition, we must carefully consider, once again, how easy it is for people of ill intent to obtain deadly weapons. Even if you believe strongly in the Second Amendment, and are intimate with gun culture (as I am), there is still no reason for a citizen to own an assault rifle unless he is planning an assault. None! You don’t hunt deer with assault rifles. You don’t keep the vermin out of the garden with assault rifles. These military-style guns are specifically designed for the rapid killing of human beings. Let’s assign the weapons of war to the battlefield.
Furthermore, we must re-examine how we can restrict suspected terrorists’ access to guns, at least the deadliest ones. As CNN reported this week: “People on the United States’ terrorist watch list passed background checks and have been allowed to purchase firearms 91 percent of the time in 2015, updated federal data shows.” Mateen wasn’t on this list, so his purchases wouldn’t have been restricted anyway, but still this number should scare us profoundly.
Mass shootings are only a fraction of our gun violence epidemic. Around 33,000 people die each year in gun-related deaths in this country, many in small-number homicides that have becomes a sort of ambient horror to which we are growing worrisomely numb, and many others are suicides or unintentional deaths, which include a disturbing number of children.
This norm of ours simply isn’t normal. Too many of us are making a conscious — and unconscionable! — decision to do nothing or to not do more. There is so much blood on our hands that no amount of Second Amendment rationalizing can wash them clean. To paraphrase Macbeth, our hands would stain the sea scarlet and turn the green one red.
Lastly, we must remember that our foreign policy — whether bombing Muslims or banning them — has consequences. Seeking to diminish one threat can inflame another. Wars and reckless rhetoric are governed by the laws of unintended consequences, so we must tread carefully.
The Muslim community, like any other, is composed primarily of peace-loving people who despise violence. But that community, like any other, also has a small population of weak-minded people prone to violence. The difference in this moment is that unlike other populations, foreign terrorists are specifically targeting the vulnerable among the Muslim population for indoctrination and radicalization. What we must do as a society is thwart these efforts, not enable them.
Omar Mateen was an American-made monster, and America must decide how best to make fewer in his likeness.
(This column originally appeared in the New York Times JUNE 16, 2016 under the title “Omar Mateen, American Monster”)
Charles M. Blow is a New York Times Columnist and nationally-known commentator: “I invite you to visit my blog By The Numbers, join me on Facebook and follow me on Twitter, or e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.”