The Orlando massacre can’t be reduced to guns

June 16, 2016

The instinctive response to get rid of the guns is understandable--but as Danny Katch explains, there's much more to a mass murder spree like Orlando than access to guns.

AFTER THE massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, there was no time to process and grieve over this monumental loss of beautiful life. The struggle began immediately to define the meaning of this latest atrocity.

Was the killer Muslim? At one level, this question should matter as much as whether a devastating hurricane was named Jake or Jalil. But the more common mass murders become, the more inherently political they become--and the more intense becomes the public autopsy of each broken shard of thought inside the minds of those who carry them out.

Who were the victims? Were they immigrants? Queer? Muslim? If they are members of groups that are oppressed in this country, we fight for those collective identities to be recognized. We know these labels can't come close to describing the 49 people who were wonderfully individual, and who are now uniformly dead--but we also know that we can't let opportunistic bigots to reduce them to simply American victims of terror.

How horrible that some people can only accept immigrants and LGBTQ people as American in death. It's a grim continuation of that old genocidal chestnut, "The only good Indian is a dead Indian."

A candlelight vigil in honor of the victims held in Washington, D.C.
A candlelight vigil in honor of the victims held in Washington, D.C. (Victoria Pickering)

CYNICS CAN dismiss both sides for attempting to "use" the Pulse massacre to advance an "agenda." And they would be correct in the sense that, yes, some of us want to "use" this rampage to try to prevent future violence against LGBTQ people--while others hope it will be a springboard for yet more war on the Muslim world.

But the cynics' underlying assumption of a moral equivalence between left and right is wrong. The fight for the meaning of the Pulse massacre matters, as does the larger fight to diagnose the societal sickness leading to escalating numbers of massacres.

If Omar Mateen is deemed to have been driven primarily by the rhetoric of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and if the endless "war on terror" is further escalated in response, this will in turn ramp up two of the factors that seem to have had more to do with Mateen's rampage--and certainly have played a larger role in the vast majority of American mass shootings: militarism and violent masculinity.

Very few of the hundreds of mass shootings in the U.S. in recent years have been carried out by Muslims. But almost all of them have been carried out by men. One in every six of these killers had prior arrests for domestic violence, and that proportion is surely misleading because of how many domestic violence victims--like Omar Mateen's first wife--never call the cops on abusive partners.

As for militarism, it's simply absurd--and yet practically universal, at least in mainstream politics and the media--to pretend that this era of mass shootings has nothing to do with the longest period of continuous war in U.S. history, and the corresponding militarization of police who now routinely don Kevlar and carry assault rifles across the country.

An endless "war on terror" leads to an endless glorification of heavily armed snipers, Navy SEALs and SWAT teams--and inevitable blowback from those who identify with the victims of the wars and desire to get revenge.

In the case of Mateen, it seems to have produced both at the same time. For years, he admired the NYPD and worked for G4S, a leading security company. And he apparently pledged allegiance to ISIS and its war on the West--as well as Hezbollah and the al-Nusra Front, two Islamist forces that are locked in deadly combat with ISIS.

IN THE face of a right-wing campaign that will turn a hate-filled massacre of LGBTQ Latinx into future hate-filled violence directed at Muslims, there's a crying need to build awareness about the terrible toll of war, and of racial and gender violence--and to build movements to confront them.

Instead, the supposed "left" side of the national discussion in the aftermath of Orlando was dominated by leading voices of the Democratic Party.

At worst, they were indistinguishable from Republicans in their bloodthirsty cries for vengeance against innocent people in the Middle East. At best, they tried to deflect the discussion away from the roots of these spasms of violence--more often than not onto the issue of guns and gun control.

It's understandable why many people would wish for some form of gun control in times like these. The massive number of guns in this country is a clear symptom of a culture of violence--and talking about that can seem like a healthy way to counter right-wing efforts to whip up Islamophobia. It seems like an eminently practical solution to violence--if people didn't have guns, there wouldn't be gun violence--and more realistic than taking on militarism and misogyny.

But while focusing on the how of American violence rather than the why might seem pragmatic, it actually leads our side to abdicate from the fight over the meaning of the Pulse massacre, ceding the ground to reactionary explanations like Islamophobia.

Moreover, most proposed gun control measures--from stricter background checks to barring people with certain criminal records from buying guns--wouldn't impact the vast majority of mass shootings that have taken place. As much as gun control advocates mock the National Rifle Association's rhetoric about "good guys" with guns stopping "bad guys" with guns, their own proposals are premised on the idea of keeping guns out of the hands of "bad guys."

Mass shootings, however, are usually committed by people with no obvious red flags--until after the fact, of course. They are people who have been "radicalized"--to use the term that the U.S. media and political establishment have applied exclusively to Muslims who commit violent acts--by something sick in American society.

Even worse, gun control inherently means turning to the U.S. government--which Martin Luther King famously called "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world"--to reduce violence.

On Wednesday, Senate Democrats used a filibuster to hold up other business "until we get some signal, some sign that we can come together," said Connecticut's Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy, in support of bipartisan legislation to disallow people on federal terrorism "watch lists" from buying guns.

Set aside for a moment the injustice of heaping another stigma on top of the many innocent people, overwhelmingly Arab and Muslim, who end up on the government's no-fly list for no other reason than a clerical error, refusing to work for the Feds as an informant, or having a name similar to someone else on the list.

The larger point is that the U.S. government has spent the past 15 years conducting an anti-terror witch hunt directed at untold numbers of Arabs and Muslims. The terrible consequence is the increase in attacks on Muslims and their houses of worship--while Islamophobia runs even more rampant among law enforcement officers who are supposed to protect them, but don't.

The grim fact is that this "reasonable" gun control proposal would discriminate against some of the Americans with most justification in wanting to be armed for their self-defense.

THERE SEEM to be no limits to the double standards and rank hypocrisy of government officials who preach about getting guns off the streets while recklessly adding to the massive arsenals of various forces of the state. Eman Abdelhadi described the scene at a New York City vigil for the victims in Orlando outside the historic Stonewall Inn:

Politician after politician took the stage and talked, not about homophobia, but about gun control. In the same breath, they lauded the NYPD for "protecting New Yorkers." Indeed, the police seemed at home in front of Stonewall, carrying the same assault rifles that had been used two days earlier to kill the people we had come to mourn.

This wasn't just an unfortunate visual irony. As Alex Gourevitch pointed out in Salon, the police forces entrusted to enforce gun control do so with the same biases held by Mateen and many other gunmen:

There is no reason to expect fair enforcement of gun control laws, or even that they will mainly be used to someone prevent these massacres. That is because how our society polices depends not on the laws themselves, but on how the police--and prosecutors and courts – decide to enforce the law. Especially given how many guns there are in the U.S., gun law enforcement will be selective. That is to say, they will be unfairly enforced, only deepening the injustices daily committed against poor minorities in the name of law and order.

As for Abdelhadi, a queer Muslim activist, she probably didn't feel better two days later when the cover of the New York Daily News featured a photo of a dashing Marine holding a machine gun in Iraq with the headline: "No civilian should own this gun."

That headline was probably intended as a liberal challenge to the conservative fanatics who care about no part of the Constitution so much as the "right to bear arms." But it also embodied a logic, embraced by conservatives as well, that has been promoted by every imperial power since Rome: Violence is meant to be used over there on them, not here on us.

But it never turns out to be quite so simple, especially for those and their families who call "over there" home, or did once.

Every mass shooting in the U.S. that reaches the headlines--and keep in mind that so many of them aren't major news outside the area where they occur--produces sentiment in favor of gun control. It's a natural response, especially considering the behavior of the right-wing fanatics who think the solution to violence is more guns.

But the gun control advocates in some position of responsibility for the state machine at various levels--like those NYPD-loving politicians outside the Stonewall, or Chris Murphy in the Senate, or Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton presiding over the U.S. war machine--aren't just reacting instinctively when they put gun control in the spotlight after a horror like Orlando.

Whether they are fully conscious of it or not, they are using their position and prominence to prevent the spotlight from shining on the real causes of violence and bigotry in U.S. society.

We on the left need to do all we can to draw attention back to those root causes. Otherwise, we will be set back in our struggle to stop future mass shootings and violence, whether they take place over there or over here.

Further Reading

From the archives