Charleston and Orlando are both chapters in the same book of hate

Charleston and Orlando are both chapters in the same book of hate

Just over a year ago, on June 17, 2015, Dylann Roof murdered nine people at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Roof was motivated by his ideology of white supremacist violence, and so it wasn’t terribly surprising when photos emerged on social media of Roof wearing a jacket emblazoned with the flag of white-ruled Rhodesia.

The discussions in the days afterwards dealt with the symbolism of the Confederate battle flag, the power of mercy, and the influence of racist ideology. One discussion that we did not have at the time was about the threat of Rhodesian politics to American security, or whether Roof was really an agent of the international powers that still seek to restore white rule in Zimbabwe, or why the Obama administration refused to name the foreign enemies that are attempting to destroy us.

And now? Omar Mateen, a failed security guard from Port St. Lucie, Florida, with a history of domestic abuse and incoherent claims of influence among international terrorist networks, walked into an Orlando nightclub and murdered forty-nine people with a personal arsenal of ridiculous firepower. During his siege of the club, Mateen phoned 911 and claimed a relationship with the so-called Islamic State. ISIS confirmed Mateen’s claim, but that’s their pattern. It works to the benefit of ISIS’ fundraising and propaganda campaigns to lay claim to any psychopath with a martyr complex, a social media account, and a personal arsenal, but there isn’t any evidence of contacts between Mateen and IS before the attack occurred.

Mateen looks more like a Dylann Roof – a maladjusted bully who attached himself to the fantasies of power spun by institutionalized forces of hatred – than like an agent of terrorist conspiracies. But this time, there has been an intense campaign of voices – Senator Ted Cruz, recently a candidate for the Republican nomination for president, for example – clamoring to know why a murderer’s claims haven’t been treated as reality.

There are times when I feel constrained from taking on a particular conversation in the headlines because the topic feels absurd. Just a few days ago, I assumed that the ridiculous bumper-sticker sloganeering surrounding Mateen’s pathetic plea for international relevance was impossible to write about seriously, and would surely evaporate once the weekend brought the end of the daily talk radio broadcasts. Instead, the insistence that Islam is the key to understanding Mateen’s attack, and the call for unprecedented levels of discrimination against Muslims, is ubiquitous.

So, in the interest of clarity, let’s talk about the context of the mid-June murders of the last couple of years.

Omar Mateen claimed that his actions were motivated by his commitment to the Islamic State. He had previously claimed to support Al Qaeda and Hezbollah; the three organizations represent different religious movements and have been in a hot-and-cold state of warfare against each other for years. His family said that he was not religious, and his ignorance regarding some of the most significant fault lines in the politics of the Middle East support that statement. So do his issues with alcohol, and his hope, as he told co-workers, that his wife and children would be assaulted by non-Muslim law enforcement agents “so that he could martyr himself.” And, indeed, Mateen did not target agents of the American military-industrial complex or, for that matter, any aspects of the American security state. He tried and failed to be PART OF the American security state. No, he targeted Latin night at a gay nightclub. He slaughtered members of American communities that are already under attack, communities that have long been selected for acts of violence.

In one of the genre films that helped to shape the vigilante imagination of our contemporary gun control debates, “Sudden Impact,” Clint Eastwood’s Harry Callahan interrupts a robbery at a San Francisco diner. The potential shoot-out references the climax of the earlier film “Dirty Harry,” in which Callahan faces down a serial killer in the style of an old Western. In “Sudden Impact”’s opening shoot-out however, no guns are actually pointed at Callahan. Eastwood’s white detective points his enormous Smith & Wesson at a black criminal who points his own gun at a waitress. “Go ahead,” Callahan says, in a line that was later copied by President Ronald Reagan. “Make my day.” Mateen mimics the same premise; he fantasizes about the assault on and, presumably, the deaths of his wife and children because that would enable him to become a victim and warrior. When that doesn’t happen, he finds other victims of his society, and guns them down. When he pretends to do so as a participant in distant religious wars about which he apparently knows little or  nothing, Senator Ted Cruz and others rush to serve as accomplices to his fantasy, because doing so serves their own fantasies of heroism and victimization.

In reality, Mateen and his enablers in our politics are aiming at the same targets.

In short, Omar Mateen chose to become a “martyr” by striking out at two groups in America – Latinos and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer people – who have been increasingly threatened and attacked by national political leaders, not least the likely presidential nominee of the Republican Party, and now there is a drum beat of hollow but hateful rhetoric demanding that the current president attack Muslims, which is to say, the members of a THIRD group targeted for bullying by Donald Trump.

So much for the targets of these killers; what about their method? The unhinged reading of the Second Amendment currently peddled by the National Rifle Association continues to operate as though it were designed to do nothing but increase the killing power of people like Dylann Roof and Omar Mateen. We must not only confront the murderous actions of people like Roof and Mateen, or the hate speech of national leaders like Trump; we must also target the legal shifts of the last decade that have introduced a whole new era of slaughter.

The horrible events of June 2015 and June 2016 are chapters in the same nightmarish story; American fear and hate turning on the populations deemed isolated and vulnerable, with a resulting mass murder that is made far more effective because of our feeble gun laws, the weakness of our elected officials, and our addiction to a vigilante imagination. Our June bloodbaths are no more the handiwork of ISIS than they are the work of Rhodesia. They are, rather, as American as Westerns, as “Dirty Harry” movies, and as lynchings. Roof and Mateen are part of the world we have made, and we, through our actions, our words, and the demands we make of and through our political process are the only things that can free us.

Here are the names and faces that we should remember from these nightmarish June bloodbaths. Please think of them in the days ahead as you contact your representatives, start petitions, march, speak, and vote.

Photo of Orlando vigil via Flickr/apalapala.

About author

Ron Schmidt
Ron Schmidt 45 posts

Dr. Ronald Schmidt is an Associate Professor of Political Science in the Department of History and Political Science at the University of Southern Maine.


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