© Josh Sager – June 2016
Today, America experienced the worst mass shooting in its history and the highest casualty terrorist attack since the September 11th attacks. Current reports indicate that 50 people were killed and 53 were injured. Just to put the magnitude of this attack into perspective, more people were murdered in Orlando today than during the Newtown and Virginia Tech mass shooting combined (49 dead). This terrible crime is intersects between a hate crime, terrorism, and the American epidemic of mass shootings. It was a truly reprehensible act and we must do everything in our power to prevent it from ever happening again.
Omar Mateen—an America-born Islamic extremist who had pledged loyalty to ISIS—entered an Orlando club catering to the gay community at approximately 2AM on June 12th and opened fire with an assault type weapon and a handgun (the exact weapons have not been released). After a prolonged shooting, he took a large number of hostages (several dozen) for three hours. Police stormed the club just after 5AM, using flash bangs as a distraction and ramming through the front door with an armored vehicle. Mateen was shot dead during the exchange and the hostages were saved. After police killed Mateen, a “suspicious device” was found on his person, leading the bomb squad to detonate it in place for safety.
While the FBI has suspected Mateen of being an ISIS sympathizer for several years, they couldn’t find evidence of him committing prosecutable crimes. Currently, it is not known whether this attack was his first criminal act in support of Islamic extremism (it isn’t a crime to approve of jihadists, merely to give them material aid or commit violent in their name) or whether the FBI simply failed to find evidence of past crimes.
In response to this terrorist attack, we must take a measured response—on one hand, we cannot let those who would use this attack to justify bigotry control the discussion, while, on the other, we cannot deny that religion was a serious factor in this attack.
The Trumps of the world will use this attack to justify anti-Muslim policies (e.g. Muslim bans or registries) or general infringements on our civil liberties (e.g. NSA blanket surveillance, the Patriot Act, etc.). These people are just bigots who are capitalizing on a tragedy to justify their hatred and advance oppressive policies that otherwise would repulse the American public. They will force us to exchange the promise of security for our civil rights and, in particular, the rights of the peaceful Muslims who live among us and despise the people who associate their faith with violence.
On the other end of the spectrum from anti-Muslim bigots, there are apologists and relativists who argue that this type of terrorism has no connection to religion and is simply a function of poor US foreign policy choices. These people are denying reality—the shooter himself justified his attack on a gay club by claiming that he was disgusted when he saw gay men kissing. There is no coherent non-religious or geopolitical explanation for this type of attack (e.g. he didn’t attack a military recruiting office, government building, military base or even a bar frequented by military personnel) and all of the evidence points to him being an Islamic fundamentalist. He takes a literalist view of the Quran’s, Hadiths’ and Siras’ calls to kill homosexuals (e.g. from the Al Tirmidhi Hadith, 1:152: “Whoever is found conducting himself in the manner of the people of Lot, kill the doer and the receiver”) and is acting according to his faith.
The proper response to this shooting exists in the sane middle ground between the bigot and the apologist. Terrorist attacks like the one in Orlando create the kind of fear that lends credibility to the extremists and leads us to make stupid decisions. We must fight back against this fear and not overreact in ways that causes even more harm.
First, we cannot let the crimes of this terrorist be used to justify hatred against the majority of moderate Muslims who don’t mean us any harm. The more we marginalize Muslims, the easier it is for terrorists to recruit within our country, and the more likely it is that we will face similar attacks in the future.
Second, we cannot let this attack increase the support for bigots like Trump, who promise brash, reckless and violent retaliation in response to this attack. While blind anger may be attractive to some, sane people need to stop these people from doing things that pose extreme dangers to our nation (e.g. electing Trump president) or civilians across the world (e.g. random drone bombing of ISIS held areas).
Third, we need to recognize that Islam currently has a serious and unique problem with extremism and find new ways to deradicalize extremists and mitigate the harm they can inflict. Organizations like Maajid Nawaz’s Quilliam Foundation have been working on this issue for years, but it is a hard process, made even harder by people who deny any connection between religion and action—to solve a problem, you first need to recognize its roots.
Fourth, the most immediate policy solution that we must pursue is the reform of our lax and dangerous gun laws. With the Paris, San Bernardino and Orlando shootings, it has become apparent that terrorists have realized that they can kill gigantic numbers of people with guns. Unlike bombs, which may not function properly, guns are easy to buy, can be used to kill large numbers of people quickly, and are less likely to malfunction during an attack (e.g. the underwear bomber’s bomb didn’t mix properly thus didn’t explode). We need to pass new gun laws at the federal level, ensuring that pro-gun states do not have the option of keeping their gun laws dangerously lax.
Mateen bought the guns he used in this massacre last week and, from everything we know so far, his purchases were legal. He was able to buy these guns despite being a known ISIS sympathizer and there were no requirement for him to have a psychological evaluation before he was handed a deadly weapon. This is clearly an unsustainable situation and we very well may see more similar shootings in the future if nothing is done to address it.