The Orlando shooting, as now appears to be the norm when such a tragedy occurs, has resulted in a deeply polarised response on social media and through society in general. Once, such incidents would unite communities in mourning and grieving. In the wake of Orlando, however, people of all political stripes wasted no time in reducing the shooting to a single cause, even before facts pertaining to the shooting have been verified and confirmed. On the political left, it has been framed primarily as a result of a lack of gun control. On the political right, the attack is seen as further confirmation that the West is losing the fight against Islamist terrorism. Each side blames the other for enabling the attack to happen, resulting in further entrenching and division. Responses from political leaders in America have reflected this. President Obama and presumptive Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, in the aftermath of the shooting, called for tighter gun control. Presumptive Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, meanwhile, excoriated Obama and Clinton for not acknowledging the role of ‘Radical Islam’, calling for their resignations for not doing so.
As more facts and information come to light, it has become clear that there are several factors at play behind the actions of Omar Mateen. Firstly, the attack was jihadist in nature, with Mateen having pledged allegiance to ISIS in a 911 call made during the shooting. Mateen had been investigated by the FBI since 2013 as a sympathiser of the Boston bombers as well as to Al-Qaeda, though he was not believed to be directly connected to any of these groups. The attack is also directly homophobic in nature, despite attempts by some in the media to downplay this element of the attack. The targeting of the Pulse nightclub was a calculated, intentional move on the part of Mateen. It is important to acknowledge this in addition to the link between Mateen and Islamism. As former Islamist turned counter-extremist Maajid Nawaz argues, the strand of Islamism which Omar Mateen prescribed to is deeply homophobic in nature. The attack occurred as a result of Mateen being ‘angered’ by the sight of two men kissing. In the months prior to the attack, he had attended a speech by radical preacher Farrokh Selakeshfar, who declared that ‘Death is the sentence’ for homosexuals.
There are also important issues raised in respect to mental health as well as firearms access. According to his ex-wife, Omar Mateen had issues with bipolar disorder and would regularly beat her. Mateen also allegedly had issues with steroid abuse. Despite these issues, Mateen worked as an armed security guard for several years. Even as he was being investigated by the FBI, Mateen was still able to easily access firearms, including the AR-15 assault rifle used to carry out the attack. This particular rifle has also been behind several other major mass shootings, including the San Bernardino shooting late last year, as well as the Aurora and Newtown shootings.
There is another, less discussed aspect of this attack and similar ‘lone wolf’ attacks, which is that of radicalisation occurring as a result of disenfranchisement and resentment at society, often related to an individual’s failure in their own life. These individuals, sometimes referred to as the ‘lost boys’ of society, seek revenge in dramatic, violent fashion in order to settle these grievances. This often includes attaching themselves to an extremist ideology, such as white nationalism or Islamism among others. In this instance, Omar Mateen attached himself to a radical Islamist ideology as a means of enacting this revenge. Such occurrences of this type of violence have increased in recent years and do not appear to be lessening any time soon. As well as the issues this raises for society in general, the ‘lost boy’ phenomenon also poses an issue in terms of national security. These individuals can easily be radicalised, yet are hard to track down, as they are often not directly tied to a larger organisation.
Whatever angle you look at the Orlando shooting, the incident raises hard questions for society. The attack simultaneously involves jihadist terrorism, homophobia, mental health and firearms access issues as well as broader national security issues and questions of civil society. All of these are polarising, divisive issues in society on their own, let alone dealt with simultaneously in the context of an event such as the Orlando shooting. For any progress to be made on any of these fronts, a mature, honest and nuanced dialogue is essential, which does not reduce events like Orlando to a single pet issue. Given the ever more polarised and partisan nature of discourse and debate in society, however, this appears to remain unlikely.