The Orlando Massacre: More than Terrorism

By Livvy McComb.25 Nov 2016

Donald Trump does a good job of epitomising the worst parts of American culture and following the devastating massacre at the Pulse gay club in Orlando on June 12th, he didn’t fail to live up to expectations. He tweeted: “Appreciate the congrats for being right on radical Islamic terrorism, I don’t want congrats, I want toughness & vigilance. We must be smart!” Below the tweet’s severely inappropriate narcissism lies an issue more pervasive than Trump’s ego: the pigeonholing of the massacre into an issue of radical Islamic ideology and terrorism.

Such a response to an incident of this nature is unsurprising. The pledge of a Muslim man to Daesh as he massacred 49 people undoubtedly furthers right wing, xenophobic politicians in their quest for greater immigration restrictions. Not because Omar Mateen was an immigrant, not because Muslim immigrants and asylum seekers are inherently terrorists, but because it taps into the West’s fears about foreigners and the refugee crisis.

The day after the massacre, an unofficial EU leave campaign with links to UKIP published a campaign poster referencing the attack. “Islamist extremism is a real threat to our way of life. Act now before we see an Orlando-style atrocity before too long,” it read, against a backdrop of Daesh fighters waving Kalashnikovs. Disgustingly, Leave.EU exploited the 49 deaths to suggest that the UK will experience Daesh attacks unless it introduces stricter immigration laws (presumably by leaving the EU). But the last time I checked, America wasn’t in the EU. The last time I checked, Mateen was an American citizen. You can impose as many immigration controls as you like, but there are no borders when it comes to the internet. In 2015, a House of Commons Defence Committee found that Daesh “have proved themselves adept in the use of social media, sending 90,000 messages a day.” And Britain is no stranger to home grown terrorists; three of the four 11/7 suicide bombers were British born.

So anti-immigration politicians preach about the dangers of Islamic extremism to further their political aims and unfortunately this narrow mindedness seeps into the already prejudiced media and public consciousness. Evidently the availability of Daesh propaganda played a role in this tragedy; Mateen’s laptop had been used in recent years to view extremist videos online, including beheadings. Such material is undoubtedly inflammatory. But although Mateen claimed allegiance to so-called Islamic State during the nightclub attack, the CIA have not been “able to uncover any link” between him and the terrorist group. Moreover, Mateen appears to have had a weak ideological alignment to the group, if any. In 2013, whilst working as a security guard, he claimed to be associated with Hezbollah and Al-Qaeda, both enemies of Daesh.

So what other influences were at play here? And what can we learn from them?

Five months on, it’s still assumed by many that the motivation for Mateen’s attack was purely his religious beliefs and this is a grave mistake. It is no coincidence that Mateen attacked a gay club, a safe haven for people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, amongst other non-heterosexual, non-cis identities. Whilst discussing the events in Orlando on Sky News, journalist Owen Jones walked out of the studio after the Sky presenters failed to acknowledge the attack for what it was: a hate crime against the LGBT community. “At the end of the day this was a homophobic hate crime, as well as terrorism, and it has to be called out.” Jones said. “If he’d [Mateen had] walked into a synagogue and massacred dozens of Jewish people, you wouldn’t be saying what you’re saying now… You would be talking about it as an anti-Semitic attack. This was a deliberate attack on LGBT people.”

Mateen’s father, Seddique Mateen, has reported that prior to the attack his son had become enraged by the sight of two men kissing. Although Seddique condemned his son’s actions, he declared that “God will give the punishment” for being gay. Mateen evidently grew up in a homophobic household. In crimes with Muslim perpetrators, fear of extremism means that attention is focused on the incidents’ religious associations however tenuous this may be, consequently blurring out other vital factors, motivations and impacts. Yes, this was a terrorist attack, but it was equally a hate crime.

The social nuances of the mass shooting also warrant greater scrutiny. Instead of merely pointing fingers, the Land of the Free needs to take a long, hard look in the mirror.

Incite and facilitate: that’s what America does. Sadly, Britain is no stranger to anti-Islamic rhetoric and hate crimes, but the Islamaphobic climate in America is terrifying. A 2010 Gallup poll found that 48% of Muslim Americans surveyed had personally experienced racial or religious discrimination in the past year. This anti-Muslim sentiment alongside bigoted remarks such as President Elect Trump’s proposed “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” pushes marginalised, vulnerable individuals into the hands of Daesh. Both President Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have voiced such concerns, with Obama warning “This is a country founded on basic freedoms, including freedom of religion… If we ever abandon those values, we would not only make it a lot easier to radicalize people here and around the world, but we would have betrayed the very things we are trying to protect,” and Clinton rightfully asserting “What I will not do is demonize and declare war on an entire religion.” An America that fully embraces Islam for the peaceful religion it is will not prevent terrorist attacks happening, but it will create a more tolerant environment in which it is harder for vulnerable US citizens to be radicalised.

Furthermore, the Daily Mail, Trump-esque narrative of Orlando further unravels when we take a closer look at Mateen… beyond his faith. Reports have emerged of Mateen’s violent behaviour at school, recollections of “his instability” from his ex-wife who he physically abused, and accounts of his alleged repressed homosexuality. As Obama commented on June 14th, Mateen “appears to have been an angry, disturbed, unstable young man who became radicalised… Their [Daesh’s] propaganda, their videos, their postings are pervasive and more easily accessible than we want.”

Socially ingrained homophobia, archaic anti-LGBT legislation… America is again guilty of inciting. Legislation such as North Carolina’s Bill 2 is dangerous in the sense that it reinforces homophobic and transphobic attitudes, consequently rationalising attacks on the LGBT community in the minds of hateful individuals. From an alternate perspective, if the reports that Mateen was gay or bisexual are true then this climate of intolerance may have aggravated any self-hatred and internalised homophobia that he may have experienced. A murderous (and possibly gay) man who has been brought up in a family that doesn’t tolerate homosexuality is a product of his society and upbringing as well as his mental state and personal motivations.

And now, arguably the most terrifying reality of the Orlando massacre: the facilitation of hate crimes and terrorism by the American government. The American Constitution’s second amendment (dating from the 18th century, may I add) ensures that “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” As of 19 November 2016, 13,044 people had died as a result of gun violence in America (source:; we can only wonder how many of those lives wouldn’t have been wasted if America had tighter gun laws.

Mateen acquired his semi-automatic handgun and rifle legally. The owner of the store he purchased the weapons from said in a statement following the attack, “An evil person came in here and legally purchased two firearms from us. He passed a background check that every single person who purchases a firearm in the state of Florida undergoes.”

So what restrictions are there on gun ownership in Florida? You can’t buy a gun if: 1. You’re under 18 2. You’ve been convicted of a felony 3. You’re a convicted perpetrator of domestic violence
4. You currently have a restraining order against you 5. You’ve been committed to a mental health institution

That’s it. Those are the only restrictions in place. If you’re mentally ill but haven’t been institutionalised (as was the case with the Virginia Tech shooter), you’re free to purchase a gun. If you’re an abusive individual whose partner is too afraid to speak out, you’re free to purchase a gun. If you want to murder 49 people in a gay club and you don’t have any previous convictions, Congress will place a semi-automatic handgun in your hand.

Obama has been a strong advocate of gun control legislation. He has campaigned for the introduction of detailed background checks, a ban on military-style assault weapons, limits on magazine capacity and improvements in mental health services. I don’t support public possession of firearms, full stop, but in a country that will not ban public firearm ownership in the foreseeable future Obama’s proposals are basic yet vital steps that need to be taken.

Unfortunately, Obama has faced intense opposition from the likes of the National Rifle Association and Congress and as a result he has not made the change that is so desperately needed. Following the Orlando massacre, he has renewed his calls for tighter gun controls, saying, “Being tough on terrorism, particularly the sorts of home-grown terrorism that we’ve seen now in Orlando and San Bernardino, means making it harder for people who want to kill Americans to get their hands on assault weapons that are capable of killing dozens of innocents as quickly as possible. That’s something I’ll continue to talk about in the weeks ahead.”

Ultimately, only Mateen is responsible for his actions. This is not about blame. This is not about sympathising with a murderer. This is an attempt to learn from the deaths of 49 innocent people and to broaden understanding of American society, including its impact on troubled individuals. The socially ingrained homophobia, transphobia and Islamaphobia in America is dangerous to national security: it can be used by hateful individuals to rationalise their behaviour and in other cases can push vulnerable people who are subjected to this discrimination to extremes. But this issue is more pervasive than one disgusting act of violence that drew international attention: prejudice is America’s silent disease, working on a daily basis below the radar in an attempt to disempower LGBT and Muslim citizens, to make them feel unsafe in the country they call home. Nevertheless, the resilience of Muslims and the LGBT community is one of the most inspiring testaments to the cliché that love is the strongest antidote to hatred.

Orlando was yet another tragedy in a country of never-agains. As a result, for the first time in my life I find myself agreeing with Donald Trump: “We must be smart!” Not “smart” in his scaremongering, discriminatory sense of the word because, as we have established, this ignorant approach is unfathomably damaging. We must be “smart” in the true meaning of the word. For America this means the NRA and Congress swallowing their pride and making necessary compromises to save lives- a prospect that appears unrealistic considering the impending Trump administration.

But we, as Five Ways students and human beings, can be smart too. We can all do our bit to educate ourselves about discrimination and gun control; reading this article is a start but by no means should it be the end. Next, it’s our duty to educate others, to allow them to formulate their own informed opinions, and to create a discussion about gun control and prejudice. We must promote love and acceptance, and challenge discriminatory language: politely call your peers out when they use “gay” as an insult or use transphobic or homophobic rhetoric. I will continue to do all of these things on principle and in the hope that I can make even an inch of progress on the road towards social equality and gun control legislation. We have to decide if we are satisfied with the world we are living in and, in the words of Obama, “to actively do nothing is a decision as well.”

Remembering the Orlando Victims Human Rights Campaign collaborated with Ryan Murphy and 49 celebrities to honour the victims of the massacre. Watch the video tribute here:

Wisdom from Obama

  1. “Hatred towards people because of sexual orientation, regardless of where it comes from, is a betrayal of what’s best in us… You can’t make up the world into ‘us’ and ‘them,’ and denigrate and express hatred towards groups because of the colour of their skin, or their faith, or their sexual orientation, and not feed something very dangerous in this world. So if there was ever a moment for all of us to reflect and reaffirm our most basic beliefs that everybody counts and everybody has dignity, now is the time.”

  2. “The shooter targeted a nightclub where people came together to be with friends, to dance and to sing, and to live. The place where they were attacked is more than a nightclub – it is a place of solidarity and empowerment where people have come together to raise awareness, to speak their minds, and to advocate for their civil rights.”

  3. “Fuelling ISIL’s notion that the West hates Muslims, making young Muslims in this country and around the world feel like no matter what they do, they’re going to be under suspicion and under attack.  It makes Muslim Americans feel like they’re government is betraying them.  It betrays the very values America stands for.”