Gays, Guns and Jihad: Motives Blur on Closer Scrutiny

The Interpreter

Long before Omar Mateen’s victims had all been identified, the presumptive nominees for president of the United States were clashing on a seemingly narrow question: Was the massacre an act of “radical Islam”?
Donald J. Trump and other Republicans have long used the phrase, partly as a way of suggesting that President Obamaprivileges political correctness over keeping Americans safe. Democrats have avoided it for fear of exacerbating Islamophobia and legitimizing terrorists’ claims to represent a religion. On Monday morning, Hillary Clinton broke with Mr. Obama, using the term herself to describe Mr. Mateen, the Florida security guard who perpetrated the mass shooting.
This debate over terminology might seem like a distraction, but it also speaks to the hardest and most contentious question of all: When a troubled young man murders dozens of people, invoking a group with which he appears to have few real links, how do we classify, and thereby make sense of, what he did?
Orlando, like previous attacks, has prompted an obsessive search for clues that might allow us to place this violence within a familiar context.
Mr. Trump, by citing “radical Islam,” urges a narrative of clashing civilizations and war on terror. Mr. Obama, meanwhile, has focused his outrage on what he sees as the laxity of America’s gun laws. And gay rights groups have placed the attack within a long history of homophobic violence.
The question of Mr. Mateen’s motivation has ramifications that go well beyond Orlando. Those who seek stricter gun control have an incentive to emphasize his history of domestic violence, threatening statements, emotional problems and contact with the F.B.I. Those who desire a stronger American response to Islamist terrorism are motivated to see evidence for his ties to the Islamic State, the extremists he cited in a 911 call as the attack was underway.
And for gay rights advocates who yearn for recognition of the scope of their persecution, Mr. Mateen’s targeting of a gay club during gay pride month is paramount.
But as more details of Mr. Mateen’s life emerge — including reports that he visited the nightclub, Pulse, and used a gay dating app — they have blurred rather than clarified these competing narratives. The question of why this attack happened, and the underlying question of what to do about it, have only become harder to answer.
The discussion of these scattershot and contradictory cluesto Mr. Mateen’s motivations has become a proxy for an argument over whose narrative is truest and most urgent.
As social media networks and cable news shows in the United States inevitably split along partisan lines, already widened by the presidential campaign, these narratives are increasingly framed as exclusive rather than complementary.
Efforts to divine a motivation speak to something deeper than politics: a desire to make sense of seemingly senseless violence. Offering an explanation — whether it is radical Islam or mental illness or homophobia or gun access — is also a way of trying to comfort ourselves by asserting false clarity over something that is ultimately unknowable: the chain of personal experiences and decisions that led this man to murder 49 people in Orlando.
“There is a strong impulse, particularly in America, to ‘do something’ after a tragedy like this,” said Will McCants, a terrorism expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “If we know why the tragedy happened, we’ll know what to do.”
In truth, Mr. McCants said, terrorist attacks have “a confluence of causes, and because we’re dealing with the human mind and the interplay of complex social and political factors, it’s difficult to separate the crucial from the incidental.”
This uncertainty is particularly acute with the Islamic State’s strategy of inspiring so-called lone wolf attacks, through propaganda that encourages supporters around the world to act on their own.
This decentralization has given the group a seemingly global reach, but put decision making in the hands of individuals who identify with it for their own reasons and with their own agendas. It has blurred the distinction between the motivation of the group and of the individual, between violence that is strategic or that is senseless, between terrorist attacks rooted in ideology and other mass shootings reflecting more personal grievances.
“The motives of lone wolves are tough to pin down,” Mr. McCants said. “By definition, they’re not part of an organization, so their motives for attacking are bound to be more idiosyncratic.”
The holy grail of terrorism studies has, for years, been to identify a standard model or road map for why individuals attack. But repeated scholarly attempts have all failed. It is a deeply personal decision that people make for reasons that are almost entirely individual, and which may or may not even be political.
“How individuals get to this point is really complex, and if we try to boil it down to one factor we’re going to miss a lot of that complexity,” said Paul Gill, a lecturer at University College London who studies terrorism. “And it’s in that complexity that we’re going to really understand what happened.”
This reveals a difficult truth. External factors such as ideology and access to guns, though important, cannot fully explain why someone decides to lash out. Even if every detail of Mr. Mateen’s life were ultimately revealed, it would still not fully answer that most crucial question.
By shoehorning these attacks into familiar narratives — gun violence, homophobia, jihadism — we can make sense of them, helping us to grieve, and also to process the danger and how to respond to it. Even more, it allows us to validate a pre-existing worldview or belief whose truth we feel has gone unacknowledged.
But because no single narrative is ever sufficient, the debate is always unsettled — and always raging.
It’s not just Americans who are grappling with this.
In Western Europe, terrorism has become interlocked in debates over immigration and cultural inclusivity — how traditionally secular societies can or should tolerate growing Muslim minorities.
As in the United States, these debates hinge on questions of individual motive that are impossible to pin down: Are terrorists motivated by religion? By economic marginalization?
We want to live in a world where these questions have identifiable answers, and politicians are happy to tell us that they do, so that they can present themselves as the solution.
“Appreciate the congrats for being right on radical Islamic terrorism,” Mr. Trump wrote on Twitter on Sunday. “I don’t want congrats, I want toughness & vigilance. We must be smart!”
The “radical Islam” narrative, of all those available, offers perhaps the clearest appeal. It portrays attackers and potential attackers as a monolith, identifiable by common features that are alien to America’s non-Muslim majority. And it frames terrorism within the familiar context of a war — something that can be won.
Mr. Obama’s emphasis on access to deadly weapons, however, presents terrorism as an extension of crime and therefore something that can only be managed. Still, this approach offers its own villains — politicians and lobbyists who oppose tighter gun regulations — as well as a simple way for thinking about the threat and how to curtail it.
What these narratives all tend to play down or deny is the degree to which terrorism is driven by individual people making individual decisions.
Political leaders do not want to admit this, as it requires conceding that violence is never fully preventable. Nor can the Islamic State acknowledge that its “soldiers” might sometimes be little more than disturbed individuals grasping for justification. And victims — who could be said to include all citizens of any country targeted by an attack — do not want their trauma to be robbed of meaning.
That may be what is so disturbing about the ultimate unknowability of Mr. Mateen’s motivations: not just that there will inevitably be another attack on another soft target in another unsuspecting city, but also that its cause can and will be guessed at, but never really understood.



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