It is hard to make sense of what transpired last weekend when Omar Mateen bulled his way into the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, and started shooting. By the time he was dead, he had perpetrated the worst mass shooting in U.S. history. It is difficult to comprehend savagery of this scale; it is even more difficult to understand why, if the past is any precedent, it will have no effect on U.S. gun control laws.
A week after the horror, there are still more questions than answers about the shooter and his motivations. What is known is that Mateen entered the club with a handgun and a high-powered assault rifle just before it closed on Sunday morning; over the next three hours he murdered 49 people and wounded more than 50 others, before he was killed by police when they stormed the building just as he appeared to be preparing to strap bombs onto some of his hostages.
During the incident, Mateen called a local TV news station and the emergency number 911 to declare his support for the Islamic State radicals. Whether he was in fact a member or supporter of the group is uncertain; he is said to have searched online for IS videos and propaganda in the weeks before the massacre. During the massacre, he told one of the hostages that he wanted the United States “to stop bombing my country.” (Mateen was born in the U.S. of Afghan parents.) Law enforcement officials now believe the attack was IS-inspired, but not IS-directed.
It is not clear why Mateen picked Pulse as the scene of his attack. It is a popular local gay bar and former colleagues had said that Mateen voiced hatred of gays, blacks, women and Jews. He was twice married — his first wife left him after a few months of marriage, saying he was physically abusive and unstable — and had a son, but witnesses also said he frequented the bar, tried to pick up men there, had a gay dating app on his phone and posted information about himself on gay dating websites. In other words, his motivation could have been political, psychological or chemically induced.
Law enforcement officials knew of Mateen for several years. He first came to the attention of the FBI in May 2013 after he was reported making “inflammatory” statements, telling coworkers he had connections to terrorist groups like al-Qaida and Hezbollah. As Hezbollah is an enemy of IS, his declaration of support for the group during last week’s attack makes him sound confused. An FBI investigation followed — he was even put on the terrorist watch list — but after a 10-month investigation it was determined that he was not a threat.
He again come to the attention of the FBI after he was linked to another American who traveled to Syria and became a suicide bomber; apparently the two men knew each other. Again, however, the FBI determined that Mateen was no risk.
It is inexplicable for many people that a man who had twice been investigated by the FBI and had once been on the terrorist watch list could still purchase firearms. And not just guns, but high-powered semi-automatic weapons. (During the investigation it was discovered that Mateen had fired 202 rounds during the assault.) While this was the deadliest mass shooting ever by a single gunman and the deadliest terrorist attack in the U.S. since September 2001, similar, smaller incidents occur with horrific regularity.
Perhaps this time legislative action might be taken before passions cool. Democrats in the U.S. Congress launched a filibuster in the aftermath of the killings to get that body to take up gun control measures; its prospects, as always, are slim. Still, presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton is pressing for gun control and even the GOP nominee, Donald Trump, an avowed supporter of the Second Amendment right to bear arms, has said that he will talk to the gun rights lobby to get their support for a ban on “suspected terrorists” having access to assault rifles.
It is remarkable that such a state of affairs currently exists. It is a sad reflection on the state of U.S. politics that such a move not only would even have to be debated, but that its passage is not assured. And yet even if it passes, it would be the lowest of common denominators, the very, very least that Congress could do.
Far more likely is a descent into the usual finger-pointing and scapegoating. Candidate Trump has accused American Muslims of refusing to assimilate into U.S. culture — an assertion that is false — and charged President Barack Obama with sympathizing with radical Muslim terrorists, a wild and irresponsible claim. Trump has called for increased surveillance of Muslim Americans and attacks on IS overseas.
There are legitimate questions to be asked about the FBI investigation that cleared Mateen in 2014, however. Was it thorough? What did they miss? Is it even possible to police the 800,000 names reportedly on the terrorist watch list?
It is quite likely that Mateen’s instability was a cocktail of steroid-enhanced paranoia, alienation, self-loathing and violent tendencies that was made murderous by easy access to exceptionally high-powered weapons. In the abstract it is hard to comprehend. When viewed from the carnage at Pulse on Sunday morning it is unfathomable.
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