Who they call a terrorist and who they don’t

June 22, 2016

The politicians' obsession with Omar Mateen's supposed allegiance to ISIS isn't about understanding his motives, but furthering the "war on terror," writes Nicole Colson.

WHEN A horrifying mass shooting like the one at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando takes place, there's a fine line between explanation and exploitation.

After the massacre, U.S. politicians--predictably, quickly and without a moment's hesitation--leapt over the line.

That was evident from Donald Trump and Co.'s crude Islamophobia and calls for racial profiling; from the hypocrisy of political leaders who, after opposing measures to promote LGBT equality, suddenly shed crocodile tears about the victims of a hate crime; and from the rush to label Omar Mateen--before anything was known about him or his motives--an Islamist "terrorist."

Although few details of what investigators have uncovered are public, Mateen appears to have been influenced by a jumble of factors.

Friends, family and fellow worshipers at his mosque don't describe him as particularly religious, though say he might have become more so after a trip to Saudi Arabia in 2012. FBI and other officials acknowledged that there were few signs--despite two previous FBI investigations--that Mateen was, in the media's overused lingo, "self-radicalizing" around Islam.

In the early morning hours after the Pulse nightclub massacre in Orlando

In calls during the shooting, Mateen reportedly told an FBI negotiator that the bombing of Syria was a factor in his attack. He praised the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in calls to a 911 dispatcher. Yet he apparently was also politically confused enough to voice support, during the shooting and previously, not only for ISIS, but for the Syrian al-Qaeda offshoot Jabhat al-Nusra and for the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah--forces that are, to varying degrees, in ideological and military conflict with each other.

Mateen's father speculated that he may have been "set off" by witnessing two men kissing. Yet in the wake of the shooting, multiple reports have surfaced that Mateen himself may have been gay or bisexual, and that he had used gay dating apps and attended the Pulse nightclub multiple times in the past.

While much of the media and political establishment focused on what extent religious ideology might have played a role in Mateen's massacre, far fewer mentioned that this shooter, who was born and raised in the U.S., was accused of physically abusing his former and current wives; that he worked as a guard in a juvenile detention facility for G4S, an international private security contractor; and that he idolized the New York Police Department.

These signs of an infatuation with violence, power and control are at the core of American life, not radical Islam.

NEVERTHELESS, THE media drumbeat after the massacre was about how Mateen was "self-radicalizing" under the influence of reactionary Islamist organizations such as ISIS. This is a dubious concept used by law enforcement to justify the targeting of Muslims in the "war on terror."

As NPR's Dina Temple-Raston reported, Mateen's profile does not fit with that of others who have carried out terrorist attacks in the name of ISIS or other reactionary Islamist forces. According to Temple-Raston, investigators:

say that they've yet to find any indication that he became noticeably more religious, which is one of the indicators of radicalization. He still was going to the same mosque. The way he dressed didn't change. His relationship with his family didn't change in any way. And these are all typically warning signs that parents and friends and educators are told to look for if they're worried that someone they're close to is radicalizing.

Instead, Temple-Raston reporters, investigators have begun to talk about how "closely Mateen's biography adheres to profiles that they associate with typical mass shooters":

He was bullied as a kid in school. He had well-documented behavioral problems. He was aggressive toward other kids. As he got older, things didn't get much better. He took steroids, he jumped from job to job, he had a history of domestic violence. And all these things together fit into a mass shooter's profile

One report adds another strand to the tangled web. After Mateen threatened a courthouse deputy in 2013, claiming he could order al-Qaeda to kill the deputy's family, the FBI attempted to "lure Omar into some kind of act, and Omar did not bite," according to St. Lucie County Sheriff Ken Mascara.

As Max Blumenthal and Sarah Lazare wrote for Alternet:

The new revelation raises the question of whether the FBI played a role in pushing Mateen towards an act of lethal violence. Since 9/11, the FBI has relied heavily on informants to entrap scores of young, often mentally troubled Muslim men and send them to prison for as long as 25 years...

Trevor Aaronson, a journalist and author of Terror Factory: Inside the FBI's Manufactured War on Terror, revealed that nearly half of terror cases between 9/11/01 and 2010 involved informants, including some with criminal backgrounds raking in as much as $100,000 from the FBI. The FBI's assets have often preyed on mentally ill men with little capacity to resist their provocations. "Is it possible that the FBI is creating the very enemy we fear?" Aaronson wondered.

So rather than being a "self-radicalized," ISIS-supporting jihadist--as political leaders, including Barack Obama, immediately presumed--it may be that Mateen invoked the name of ISIS in order to draw more attention to his killings, not out of any real adherence to the group's ideology.

ISIS has used various means to call on "supporters" to carry out terrorist attacks in its name--particularly now, as the U.S.-led war on ISIS has put it on the defensive militarily. ISIS's goal is for violence to be committed indiscriminately, not against those responsible for the U.S. war machine in the Middle East, as it claims. This is part of the reactionary organization's drive to polarize the Muslim community by actually provoking repression.

But in the case of Orlando, political and religious ideology may have been a factor in Mateen's act, but the picture depicting all of his motives is far more complex.

Above all, it seems to have been shaped by the alienation and violence that runs through American life--and creates the toxic atmosphere for such acts of violence to take place, on a smaller scale, on an almost daily basis across the country.

THEN AGAIN, the rush to label Omar Mateen as an ISIS-supporting gunman wasn't really about understanding his motives.

For as much as the right likes to hurl accusations about the "politicization" of mass shootings--usually in an attempt to shut down the calls for gun control that inevitably arise--the rush to define Mateen and his motives as arising from Islamism is very much an act of "politicization."

And it was committed by both Republicans and Democrats who are using this horrible event to bolster support for the U.S. "war on terror"--at home and abroad, from the continuing U.S. bombardment of countries around the Middle East to the racial and religious profiling of Arabs and Muslims in the U.S.

For Muslims, this demonization has become a defining feature of the U.S. war on terror. Consider the very different media reactions to Omar Mateen's massacre and to the killings carried out by Dylann Roof, the young white supremacist who murdered nine Black members of Charleston's Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church last year.

Roof wasn't labeled a terrorist for his crimes. No one questioned whether his religious beliefs contributed to the killings and should therefore be used to crack down on others who practice the same faith. There was no suggestion that the racist bigotry Roof spouted had roots in some defect in the white/Western/Christian mindset.

In other words, who gets labeled a "terrorist" is often more a political question than a practical one.

Another example of the double standard was emerging as this article was being written. Three people were arrested as they were getting ready to drive through the Holland Tunnel into Manhattan. A search of their vehicle found loaded handguns, rifles--including an AR-15, the same kind of gun Omar Mateen reportedly used at Pulse--2,000 rounds of ammunition, and gun clips marked "America" and "United We Stand."

Yet the word "terrorist" almost certainly won't be used to describe these men. Instead, the New York Daily News cited an anonymous law enforcement source who called the three "self-styled vigilantes." On the contrary, the report took pains to report that "[a]uthorities said they don't believe the men are connected to terrorism."

The depiction of Omar Mateen is so strikingly different--despite the shaky evidence that Islamism was the main factor in his massacre--because his actions can be exploited as part of the ideological justification for the "war on terror."

Since September 11, various supposed terror plots--some serious, some outlandish, some completely incompetent--have been blamed on people who have supposedly "self-radicalized." Under this theory, to qualify as a potential terrorist, all anyone needs is a passing interest in fundamentalist religious ideology--though only Islamic fundamentalism is ever targeted--a fascination with the kind of violence endorsed by ISIS or some other Islamist grouping, and access to the Internet.

THE ISLAMOPHOBIC frenzy that followed the Orlando massacre had another dimension: Political leaders, some of them with a long record of bigotry toward LGBT people, seized on Mateen being Muslim as "proof" that Islam is uniquely oppressive toward gays and lesbians.

Take Marco Rubio, the Florida senator and failed contender for the Republican presidential nomination, who, immediately following the massacre at Pulse, declared on CNN that LGBT people were targeted in Orlando "because of the views that exist in the radical Islamic community about the gay community.

Anyone listening to those words might imagine that Rubio supports greater rights for the LGBT community. But in fact, he and any number of other Florida lawmakers want to restrict LGBT rights--and they constantly call up their own devout Christianity as justification for their attitudes.

In fact, interpretations of the Koran vary as widely as interpretations of the Christian Bible. It could also be pointed out that Muslims across the U.S. loudly denounced Mateen's actions and turned out to vigils to stand in solidarity with the victims.

There is no religious monopoly on homophobic bigotry--and violence in the service of that bigotry.

In fact, for many people, Mateen's massacre at Pulse recalled another deadly attack on LGBT people in the Southeast: the bombing of Atlanta's Otherside Lounge, a lesbian bar, in 1997, which injured five people. In that case, it was a Christian terrorist--Eric Rudolph, a member of the far-right "Army of God"--who carried out the bombing, in addition to others at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and two abortion clinics in 1997 and 1998.

In all, Rudolph's bombs killed two and injured over 120 others--all in the name of the right-wing "Christian Identity" movement, and the goal of fighting abortion and the "homosexual agenda."

Meanwhile, after the Orlando massacre, the despicable Westboro Baptist Church called on members to protest the funerals of Omar Mateen's victims. In a show of solidarity, thousands of people--of all religious denominations, as well as those who claim no religion--turned out to shield mourners from the sight of the church's hateful signs and rhetoric.

It isn't just fringe Christian groups like Westboro that spew murderous hate about LGBT people. Six months ago, prominent Republicans, including Bobby Jindal, Ted Cruz and Mike Huckabee, attended the National Religious Liberties Conference in Iowa, shortly before the Iowa caucuses for the GOP presidential nomination.

Just before introducing the three then-Republican presidential candidates and shaking their hands, Pastor Kevin Swanson called for gays to be put to death:

Yes, Leviticus 20:13 calls for the death penalty for homosexuals. Yes, Romans chapter 1 verse 32, the apostle Paul does say that homosexuals are worthy of death. His words, not mine, and I am not ashamed of the gospel of Jesus Christ. And I am not afraid of the truth of the word of God.

But, of course, neither Republicans nor Christians are being asked to apologize or take responsibility for the bigoted words and actions of their Christian brethren.

THIS ISN'T simply an academic debate. The drive to assign collective guilt to all Muslims for the massacre in Orlando is already having consequences.

Following the killings, the Islamic Center of Orlando has been inundated with threats on social media and over the telephone, including one from a man who said he saw Muslims at a specific Publix grocery store and "was going to take care of them."

The mosque has had to hire an armed guard to patrol the grounds during prayer services--and some congregants have stayed away, despite the fact that the Muslims holy month of Ramadan is usually one of the busiest times of the year.

As a report from the Council on American-Islamic Relations and the University of California-Berkeley documents, there were 78 recorded attacks on mosques last year, the highest since monitoring began in 2009. As Corey Saylor of CAIR told Democracy Now!:

The last time we had a really intense cycle of anti-mosque incidents was in 2010 during the national controversy over Park51, the Ground Zero mosque [in New York City]. That was characterized by attempts to stop mosque construction and expansion, what we call zoning incidents. This time around, it has a much more violent tenor to it, and we see a lot more acts of intimidation targeting mosques.

As political leaders and the media rush to smear Islam yet again, we have to resist the racist tide and stand in solidarity with Muslims against scapegoating.

Further Reading

From the archives