At least 50 dead. At least 50 more wounded. As the staggering numbers gutpunched their way in this morning, and America woke to the reality that in a violent nation, we reached another grim milestone, people struggled not just with the enormity of pain and sorrow, but with what to call this. Was it a hate crime, targeted as it was at an LGBT club? Was it an act of terrorism, as we learned that the shooter had a Muslim-sounding name? Was it a mass shooting?
The last two seemed like they could be in opposition, while a hate crime can apply to both. The problem is that it is (most likely) all three. While this is (as of the writing) unconfirmed, it seems that Omar Mateen called 911 to pledge allegiance to ISIS shortly before the shooting started.
A few things about this make it less an act of international terrorism, and more the actions of a sick and depraved man influenced by many factors, including the religious nihilism of ISIS. But there doesn’t seem to be any training, and certainly not any real membership in ISIS. Not to be glib, but one doesn’t join ISIS by calling 911. They generally don’t relay the message. You have to actually join.
(Obviously, there is a real danger of people actually joining ISIS and receiving training, and possibly using it in the homeland. Foreign fighters are a key part if ISIS strategy. This isn’t that. It’s a different danger.)
This idea is furthered by Mateen’s father, who said that the crime was more motivated by a hatred of homosexuals.
“We were in Downtown Miami, Bayside, people were playing music. And he saw two men kissing each other in front of his wife and kid and he got very angry,” Mir Seddique, told NBC News on Sunday. “They were kissing each other and touching each other and he said, ‘Look at that. In front of my son they are doing that.’ And then we were in the men’s bathroom and men were kissing each other.”
Seddique added, “This had nothing to do with religion.”
But…of course, it does. ISIS is explicitly opposed to homosexuality, and punishes it by death, as does al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and even “friendly” regimes in many Islamic countries. Christian ones, too, if you look at Uganda. And you barely have to twist the radio dial to hear religious-based (or at least justified) hatred of gays throughout the country. Liberal laws about transgender rights have sparked an upswing of hate speech about them as well, with Republican candidates tripping over each other to issues the loudest condemnation. A hatred of gays is both created by, and justified by, religion.
And that, to me, is why it does and it doesn’t matter that he “pledged” himself to ISIS. For years, terrorism experts and laypeople alike were wondering why there weren’t mere lone wolf attacks in the name of Qaeda or ISIS. Now, that door has fully opened, and the number of people carrying out mass shootings in the name of ISIS is going up. I think it will certainly increase. But let’s not say that this is a sign that ISIS is getting powerful, or more absurdly, that it means we are “losing” in struggle against radical fundamentalism. We may be, but these are not signs of it.
What they are signs of is that it is extremely easy to kill a lot of people in America. It happens all the time. There is a sickness and violence in our culture, a roiling anger at immigrants or gays or Muslims or Southerners or just fucking life in general, just the dispossession of a post-industrial and unequal society, where binds are breaking, and every day we hear the snapping tendons of what once held us together.
Some of these people will identify as Muslim, and decide to tell 911 or Twitter that they love ISIS before billowing out into a hurricane of murderous insanity. Some will tell a Mens’ Rights message board. Some won’t tell anyone but the diary they keep next to a dog-eared copy of misread Nietzsche.
Of course, this is what ISIS wants, by telling anyone that they are “part” of ISIS if they pledge allegiance in public. But that’s even more to the point: they are taking advantage of a sickness, of people who feel weak and helpless and want to be part of something bigger. It’s little different than Eric Harris or Adam Lanza or Jared Loughner or Dylan Roof.
At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter which imaginary idol is being propitiated by violence, whether that is white pride, Jesus, or Allah. The slaughtered are no more or less dead due to which angry god is invoked. The suffering of the families is no more or less real. We will argue, in the days and weeks, as to whether this is terrorism, or a hate crime. Liberals will hear smug lectures about how we should now see that terrorism is bad, as if we didn’t already know that. That he pledged to ISIS will be a data point in people’s absurd spreadsheets about winning or losing, and we won’t look at the main question, the one that is truly about ourselves, about the dark heart thumping madly in the center of this nation.