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The Orlando Massacre Is an Act of Terror, Whatever the Tangle of Causes


Was Omar Mateen motivated by radical ideology, mental instability, or anti-gay animus? It’s still an act of political violence.

As information flowed in on Sunday about the deceased Orlando mass-shooter Omar Mateen, a battle of narrative was playing out in the media: Was the Orlando killer a terrorist with a deep ideological commitment to radical Islam, or a mentally unstable hater with no real ISIS links? Some seized on the fact that Mateen made a call to 911moments before the massacre to pledge allegiance to the head of ISIS as proof that this was an example of organized Jihadist terrorism. But Mateen’s family emphasized personal factors: His ex-wife cited his mental instability, evident in the domestic violence he inflicted on her, while his father said that Mateen was acting out of a deep hatred for LGBT people, and in particular gay men.

In the face of such mind-numbing violence, it’s natural that we search for an all-encompassing explanation, whether it take the form of lax gun control (or conversely, no “good guy with a gun” to stop the shooter), poor mental health care, or jihadi ideology. But events never have a single cause; rather, they emerge from the weave of various causes. Moreover, in terms of judging the horror in Orlando, it little matters which cause is dominant. This was unquestionably an act of terror, whether or not it fits the FBI’s precise definition: The shooter targeted gay people for being gay in a gay public space. Is is undeniably an act of political violence.

The explanations being proffered for the atrocity shouldn’t be seen as mutually exclusive, but rather as mutually reinforcing. Unlike earlier terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda, ISIS has shown little aptitude for creating terror cells that infiltrate the West. Improved counter-terrorism measures since 9/11 have been successful in disrupting this tactic. Making a virtue of necessity, ISIS has adapted to the new environment with a novel technique: using social media to incite lone wolves who are given not specific plans but rather a general mission to wreck havoc. Not surprisingly, ISIS has found that the most vulnerable recruits are alienated and troubled souls, who often turn to extremist violence to give meaning to their chaotic lives.

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