As relatives grieve and a nation mourns, America’s political class will pick through the wreckage of the heinous events in Orlando and try to frame the tragedy in a way that suits their agenda. Those who hoped a tragedy of this nature might be extracted from partisan politics will be sorely disappointed.
The facts are sparse and shifting. This has been classed as a domestic terrorist attack that appears to have involved a Muslim and several firearms, including an assault-style weapon, in a gay club – an attack that left at least 50 dead and more than 50 injured in a swing state in an election year. As such it sits on several faultlines at a particularly volatile moment in US politics. All will be judged by their responses; some will seek political advantage. All are in some way vulnerable; none will readily admit that.
President Barack Obama described the attack as “an act of terror” and “an act of hate” and said the FBI was investigating it as an act of terrorism. “We will go wherever the facts lead us,” he said. This may not be enough for some.
Only minutes before Obama spoke, the presumptive Republican nominee, Donald Trump, had tweeted: “Is President Obama going to finally mention the words radical Islamic terrorism? If he doesn’t he should immediately resign in disgrace!”
The Democratic frontrunner, Hillary Clinton, was the most measured. “As we wait for more information,” she tweeted, “my thoughts are with those affected by this horrific act.”
Her challenger, Bernie Sanders, emphasised gun control. “We have got to do everything that we can … to make sure that guns do not fall into the hands of those who should not have them: criminals, people who are mentally ill. So that struggle continues.”
Is President Obama going to finally mention the words radical Islamic terrorism? If he doesn't he should immediately resign in disgrace!
Woke up to hear the devastating news from FL. As we wait for more information, my thoughts are with those affected by this horrific act. -H
The array of initial reactions illustrates just how confused the political response might become. Whatever else this is, it’s not about immigration. Omar Mateen, the suspected killer, was born in America. Whatever compelled him to commit such a terrible act cannot be laid at the border of a foreign nation. His hatred was home-grown.
Some will say it is about Islam. Mateen was Muslim. But mass shootings are not unique to Islam or alien to America. There were 330 last year alone.
Some will say it is about security. Mateen claimed allegiance to Islamic State. At the time of writing the Isis-affiliated news agency, Amaq, has claimed responsibility for the attack, although an official claim from Isis has been disputed. But he appears to have had no previous convictions. He may have been inspired by Isis’s brutality, but you can’t arrest people for what’s in their heads.
Some will say it is about religious integration. Interviews with his father and former wife suggest he was deeply homophobic and violent. The target of a gay club was clearly not an accident.
His father told NBC he once become enraged by two men kissing in public. His ex-wife told the Washington Post he was abusive and unstable. “He beat me,” she said. “He would just come home and start beating me up because the laundry wasn’t finished.” All this could prompt a liberal broadside against both Islam and the perils of multiculturalism.
But Muslims did not invent domestic violence or homophobia. And the determination with which some on the right have fought same-sex marriage indicates tolerance and acceptance have struggled to find a home in significant sections of Christian America. Indeed, just hours after the attack Texas’s lieutenant governor, Dan Patrick, seemed to suggest that the victims were responsible for their own deaths: “Do not be deceived,” he tweeted, citing Galatians chapter 6, verse 7. “God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows.” [See footnote.]
Just 48 hours after America laid its most famous Muslim, Muhammad Ali, to rest in a spirit of celebration and pride, the entire Muslim community faced finding itself under collective suspicion, not only of terrorism but of homophobia.
Some will say it is about guns. Reports say he bought his Glock legally. Every country has homophobia and mental illness; not every country has guns. Nowhere else in the western world could Mateen have obtained these weapons this easily. But France has strict gun laws and look at what has happened there in the last couple of years.
The truth is it is, most likely, about lots of things. And the bolder the claim that it is about any one thing, the more vulnerable it will be to contradiction and qualification. While the act of killing so many so quickly is crude, the underlying factors are complex.
But in moments of crisis such as this, complexity is all too easily mistaken for and derided as weakness. Trump’s poll lead in the Republican nomination rose after the terror attacks in France and San Bernardino, California, late last year.
Fear favours the demagogue. History sides with the cautious.
• This footnote was added on 15 June 2016. Dan Patrick later clarified that the verse was not posted in response to the Orlando shooting. He said verses posted on social media every Sunday were chosen and scheduled in advance.