Omar Mateen’s massacre of 49 patrons at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla., appears to have touched more pressure points than any of the other well-known mass shootings in the last two decades. There is the hate crime of homophobia. Then there is Mateen’s pledge of allegiance to the so-called Islamic State in the heat of his attack, raising the specter of a Muslim-American’s “self-radicalization.” There was his everyday violent and erratic behavior, suggesting that mental illness played a role. And there was his easy access to and use of a military-style weapon — unnecessary for ordinary self-defense, hunting or an afternoon on the shooting range.
While each of the foregoing issues is a cause for serious concern, it is simplistic to argue, “The answer is gun control” or “If everyone in that bar was carrying a weapon, this never would have happened.” Moreover, this does not appear to be a case of overseas terrorism and the threat of radical Islam. Mateen apparently got everything he needed right here at home, just like several other well-known domestic terrorists.
Similarly, it’s just not right to blame the carnage on a diagnosis of mental illness and to say that the solution is to mandate treatment for the mentally ill — as the gun lobby does in its opposition to common-sense gun laws. That argument ignores the problem of military-style weapon availability and stigmatizes those who live with chronic psychological conditions. And it ignores the fact that the overwhelming number of people with mental illness don’t go around shooting people.
The massacre at the Pulse nightclub has sobered a country drunk off the heady progress the LGBT community has made in terms of acceptance, inclusion and same-sex marriage. The Orlando tragedy reminds us that there remain many at the fringes of society who see violence as an effective means of opposing social or cultural progress. Add to that the reported FBI statistics that LGBT people are more likely to be targets of hate crimes than any other group — more than African-Americans and more than members of the Jewish community — and we know we have a problem.
Still, we don’t yet know why Mateen did what he did, and it is dishonest to pretend we do. But if all we do in this complex case is blame it on “all of the above” and wash our hands, then there is no chance for the kind of dialogue that is necessary to put a tragedy like this into perspective.
No matter where one comes out on the underlying questions regarding the “why” of Mateen’s actions, we are left with the perplexing and chilling question: What can a society do to prevent people with strong beliefs and haunting demons from taking lives because of them?