In case you’ve been away from the news all day, here’s the summary: early this morning a gunman attacked an LGBT nightclub in Orlando, Florida, killing (at last count) 50 people and wounding another 53. The gunman was Omar Mateen, an American citizen whose parents immigrated from Afghanistan, and he was killed by police at the scene. Mateen has been working for a security firm, G4S, since 2007, and he apparently purchased the guns used in the shooting–an AR-15 assault rifle and a Glock 17 handgun–just a few days ago, presumably with the intent of carrying out this attack. He’s married, to his second wife, having divorced his first wife in 2011; I mention this only because his ex-wife came forward to The Washington Post earlier today to say that Mateen had been physically abusive to her during their marriage. Maybe that’s not relevant to today’s attack, but it sure feels like it might be evidence of a pattern of behavior.
What we know is that this was a jihadi terrorist attack. Mateen reportedly called 911 before the shooting and pledged allegiance to ISIS, which in turn has claimed credit for the attack and referred to Mateen as “an Islamic State fighter.” Their statement regarding this attack came out more quickly than their statement about the San Bernardino shooting in December, and it differed in that it called Mateen a “fighter” but only referred to the San Bernardino shooters as “supporters.” That might not mean anything, or it might suggest that Mateen was in contact with ISIS directly in a way that Syed Farook and Tashfin Malik were not. Mateen does seem to have followed the ISIS playbook for carrying out such attacks, for whatever that’s worth. There is no evidence at this point, which is not to say something won’t be revealed later on, that ISIS directly planned this attack or provided any material aid to Mateen, though ISIS really makes no distinction between attacks it directs and attacks it merely inspires. And, really, when you can walk into a store, buy a couple of guns and some ammo, and shoot up the target of your choosing, what material aid is needed?
The picture of Mateen that’s emerging seems muddled, though that’s probably to be expected mere hours removed from the attack. His father, Siddiqui Mateen, is a Taliban supporter who is apparently fond of posting bizarre videos to YouTube on Afghan subjects. The Taliban and ISIS are enemies, but obviously share a radical Islamist worldview, and if Siddiqui Mateen passed that worldview on to his son it could have primed him to have an interest in ISIS. Omar Mateen also was apparently investigated by the FBI for links to terrorist organizations on at least two occasions, in 2013 and again in 2014–and, look, I don’t think being on the terror watch list or whatever should automatically disqualify a person from partaking of legal activities like buying oodles of high-powered firearms, because the terror watch list is a total mess, but maybe it should raise some kind of red flag somewhere? Hell, G4S has federal government security contracts, so you’d think that would have pinged something with the feds, but I guess not.
At the same time, though, Mateen was a guy who seems to have been fond of posing for bathroom selfies in the latest “NYPD”-wear (he apparently wanted to be a cop, at least according to his aforementioned ex-wife) and had Marine Corps bumper stickers on his car. Maybe he was pretending to like these particularly not-jihadi institutions in order to fit in, but then again maybe this was just a guy with a major authoritarian streak and a big desire to get his gun off. Often these lone-wolf terror attacks seem, in my admittedly amateur opinion, to be little different from any other lone shooter-type attacks. What I mean is that they’re carried out by individuals whose main motivation is to shoot people, who then go back and try to rationalize why, rather than people who are moved by some cause to take the actions they do. Instead of leaving a rambling note “justifying” their violence, these guys pledge allegiance to ISIS or al-Qaeda right before their attack. Anger–personal, raw anger–is what’s really driving them.
(Both Mateen’s father and his ex-wife have argued that he was “mentally ill,” but without evidence of an actual, diagnosed mental illness, that kind of speculation seems awfully irresponsible and unfair to people who are struggling with genuine mental illnesses and all the stigma that comes with them. So let’s not go there.)
What was Mateen angry at? I don’t think you have to look any farther than his target. This was a terror attack against a soft target in the United States, but it was equally a hate crime directed at the LGBT community. Mateen’s father told NBC that his son became “angry” after seeing two men kissing in public in Miami a “couple of months ago.” A coworker says that Mateen had a history of making homophobic remarks and was “unhinged and unstable.” There’s the domestic violence allegation by his ex-wife, who also said he took steroids. Again, this seems like a violent, angry guy with particular issues about gay people (for whatever reason) who may well have had jihadist leanings but who chose his target because of that very personal rage.
And lest we want to suggest that committing violence against the LGBT community is a uniquely jihadist thing (though it is very much one of ISIS’s core principles),
consider that, also today, police all the way across the country arrested an Indiana man named James Wesley Howell, who was on his way to the LA Pride parade carrying guns, ammo, and bomb-making materials. Maybe James Wesley Howell is a Muslim, but so far nobody’s reported that. On the other hand, maybe he’s just a sick, violent man who wanted to kill gay people for some reason that would probably only make sense to him. UPDATE: the Santa Monica police chief who originally said Howell expressed a desire to “harm” the LA Pride event now says she was mistaken. So instead of Howell, consider all the other cases of non-Muslim Americans attacking members of the LGBT community.
So this, as far as I can tell, is what happened. We can debate What It All Means in the days and weeks to come, but I think it’s important to establish What It Is before we do that.