Orlando shooting

A fatal night out

Print edition : July 08, 2016

FBI agents investigating the damaged rear wall of the night club in Orlando on June 12. Photo: JOE RAEDLE/AFP

A sign calling for a ban on assault weapons at a vigil in Los Angeles for the Orlando massacre. Photo: DAVID MCNEW/AFP

Omar Mateen, who opened fire at the night club. Photo: ORLANDO POLICE/NYT

A vigil in Los Angeles on June 13 for victims of the Orlando shooting. Photo: LUCY NICHOLSON/REUTERS

The carnage at a night club in Orlando by a lone gunman exposes the animosity fostered in America against the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community and the dangerous dimensions of its gun culture.

AT 2 A.M. on June 12, a 29-year-old gunman named Omar Mateen entered Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. The long night of entertainment and dancing had come to an end. People in the club held their final drinks. This is Pride Month, the month of celebration of gay and lesbian resilience against homophobia. The mood in the club was joyful. The gunman carried an assault rifle (AR-15) and a handgun. He unleashed round upon round in close quarters. Before the night ended, Omar Mateen killed 50 people and injured dozens more. It was the deadliest mass shootings in the United States to date. The carnage went on for three hours. The police eventually broke into the building and killed Omar Mateen.

Eddie Jamoldroy Justice (30) sent his mother a series of text messages before he was killed. “Mommy I love you,” he wrote, then “In club they shooting.” Justice, an accountant, liked to make people laugh, said his mother Mina Justice. She tried to call him but could not get through. “I’m going to die”, he wrote as he hid in the bathroom. Rosalie Ramos, mother of Stanley Almodovar (23), kept a snack for her son to eat when he came home from the club. This young pharmacy technician sent out a Snapchat video of himself from the nightclub. It was his last message to the world. Kimberly Morris (37) had moved from Hawaii to take care of her mother and grandmother. Morris, known as KJ, worked at the club as a bouncer. KJ was killed. Her friend Roxy Heart said: “He stole her smile. He stole her life. He stole her laughter.”

Homophobia

Despite major gains for the LGBTQ community (lesbians, gays, bisexual, transgender and queer) in recent years, including the right to marry, for instance, violence and discrimination continue. Harsh rhetoric against the community from right-wing politicians and religious leaders is commonplace. The right-wing pastor Kevin Swanson said that the Bible “calls for the death penalty for homosexuals”. He made these remarks at an event attended by Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, Texas Senator Ted Cruz and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee. All three were unsuccessful in getting the Republican presidential nomination this year. None of them criticised Swanson. Under the banner of “religious freedom”, the Republican Party has attempted to push through anti-gay legislation. Ben Carson, a supporter of Donald Trump, called homosexuals paedophiles, while Trump’s other supporters, Newt Gingrich and Senator Jeff Sessions, believe that gay marriage must be stopped. This is the consensus in the Republican Party—casual homophobia combined with anti-gay legislation. It is not uncommon to see extremist churches in Florida with signs that read, “Homosexuals must repent or go to hell”.

While most of these politicians sanctimoniously condemned the shooting, Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick sent out a biblical tweet, “Do not be deceived. God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows.” Under pressure, Patrick deleted the tweet. But the sentiment remains. A general sensibility against the LGBTQ community has been fostered in the country. A survey from two years ago conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute shows that a majority of Americans believe that sex between adults of the same gender is “morally wrong”. Omar Mateen’s target is a well-known gay nightclub in Orlando. His was not a random attack. He chose the club and killed with abandon. There is no other way to characterise the killing than as an assault on gays and lesbians. In a 2011 study from the Southern Poverty Law Centre, which monitors hate crimes, Mark Potok wrote: “LGBT people are more than twice as likely to be the target of a violent hate-crime than Jews or black people.”

Omar Mateen’s father said that his son was upset some weeks ago when he saw two men kissing. It is not known whether this was the spur for the violence. What is clear is that Omar Mateen lived in a swamp of homophobic messages from political and religious leaders. There is a long way between discriminatory or even hateful attitudes and mass murder. But there is no doubt that promotion of these odious ideas set the terms for those who then take to violence.

Gun violence

On May 20, Wayne LaPierre, one of the leaders of the National Rifle Association, told 80,000 members at an annual meeting that President Barack Obama was “in the toilet” for attempting to bring justice to transgender people (who are incidentally being killed at high rates). LaPierre’s colleague, Chris Cox, bemoaned the fact that “the America we know is becoming unrecognisable. Everything we believe in, everything we’ve always known to be good, and right, and true has been twisted, perverted and repackaged to our kids as wrong, backwards and abnormal.” Such language from the main gun lobby sends a dangerous message to society. It says that the LGBTQ community has ruined America. It dovetails with Trump’s rhetoric, “Make America Great Again”. The lever to do this, it suggests, is violence. There can be no other interpretation.

Thus far, in 2016, there have been over 23,000 incidents in the U.S. that include gun violence, with almost 6,000 associated deaths. Of these, 136 have been mass shootings. Omar Mateen used an AR-15, the weapon of choice for mass killing. The weapon was used in San Bernardino in 2015 and Sandy Hook in 2012, both times killing a large number of people. After the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting, Mark Barden, one of the parents of the victims at the school, said: “This is an instrument of war designed for the battlefield that is marketed and sold to the general public.” Attempts to ban this kind of weapon have been futile. If a pro-gun political movement is unwilling to bend to regulation after the massacre of 20 children, it is unlikely that any slaughter will move it.

During the attack, Omar Mateen called the police and declared his allegiance to the Islamic State (ISIS). He was “cool and calm”, said Orlando police chief John Mina. ISIS’ radio station, al-Bayan, said that the attack was a “raid on a Crusader gathering”. This was a lone gunman who had his own demons, the linkage to ISIS appears to be purely opportunistic.

Omar Mateen was born in New York to Afghan parents. His father, Mir Siddique Mateen, has a television show on the Internet, where he propounds his views on Afghan politics. More recently on Facebook, posing as the President of Afghanistan, Mir Siddique called for the arrest of Afghan politicians such as Ashraf Ghani and Hamid Karzai. He appears largely to be Pashtun nationalist, although he speaks in the videos in Dari and not Pashto. Omar Mateen had little interest in his father’s views.

Nor did he have any interest in religion. When asked about his son, Mir Siddique told The Post that Omar Mateen was not interested in Islam or radicalism. “No radicalism, no,” he said. “He doesn’t have a beard even. I don’t think religion or Islam had anything to do with this.” What seems to be clear is that Omar Mateen was a disturbed person with a history of violence. His former wife, Sitora Yusufiy, said he was an abusive husband and had little interest in religion. Noor Zahi Salman, whom he married subsequently, appears to have separated from him recently. Omar Mateen worked for G4S, a global security firm. The firm said that they had no evidence that he was dangerous. One of Omar Mateen’s colleagues at G4S, Daniel Gilroy, however, said that he often made homophobic and racist remarks. Complaints by Gilroy to his supervisors did not make any impact. Omar Mateen was “unhinged and unstable”, said Gilroy.

Nonetheless, the tenor of the coverage of the incident in the U.S. hastily went towards the question of Islam and terrorism. Donald Trump pointed his finger at “radical Islam” and called once more for a “temporary ban on Muslim migration”. That Omar Mateen was born in the U.S. and had no evident connection to ISIS seemed irrelevant. Neither Omar Mateen’s abusive history nor the deep wells of radical homophobia, or the fact that his social media posts showed him wearing New York Police Department T-shirts, seemed to define the incident. Politicians did not take these facts into consideration. Instead longer histories of fears and hatred of Islam, or Islamophobia, made their appearance.

It says a great deal about the LGBTQ movement in the U.S. that rallies and vigils to commemorate the dead and stand tall against the hatred at the same time dismissed the view that this had anything to do with Islam. Signboards read “Queers Against Islamophobia”, suggesting that there was no room in this movement for hatred against Muslims. “Our hearts are in Orlando”, read a sign at one such gathering in Northampton, Massachusetts. Pam Hannah of Northampton told Daily Hampshire Gazette: “It is unacceptable to let grief and fear turn into hate toward another group.” The Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity released a powerful statement calling for calm and “intense self-reflection”. “We ask all Americans to resist the forces of division and hatred, and to stand against homophobia as well as against Islamophobia and anti-Muslim bigotry. Let us remember that the actions of a single individual cannot speak for all Muslims.” This is an obvious thought, but not so self-evident in these tense times, particularly in a culture that finds it easier to speak of “radical Islam” than of “radical homophobia”.

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