At the very first press conference after the Orlando shootings, FBI Special Agent Ronald Hopper, said he could not provide the name of the suspect yet, but he did say that they were looking into suggestions that the “suspect had leanings toward that [Islamic extremism] ideology.” This theme continued at the second press conference. Hopper said the suspect had “pledged allegiance to the Islamic State” on a 911 call and revealed agents had investigated Mateen in 2013 and again in 2014 regarding terror threats, but lacked evidence to pursue charges. He provided no detail about why Mateen had been investigated other than “comments made to co-workers” in 2013 and potential association with a terrorist suspect in 2014. Hopper continued “the FBI is known for slow and methodical investigations…we look forward to being as completely transparent as possible.”
Four days later, John Brennan, Director of the CIA, told the Senate Intelligence Committee, that the agency has not been “able to uncover any link” between the Orlando shooter Omar Mateen and ISIS.
Disappearance of the LGBTQ Community
The theme of the initial press conference and those that came after was that this was a threat to the “community” meaning the citizens of Orlando. There was little mention of the obvious fact that this was an attack on the LGBTQ community specifically.
At the second news conference, Mayor Buddy Dyer of Orlando asked the governor “because of the scale of the crime” to declare a state of emergency for the state of Florida and the city of Orlando. The suspect was identified as Omar Mateen, a US citizen from a nearby Florida town. Still no discussion of the specific community targeted – LGBTQ community, but enough of an emergency to believe the entire state of Florida could be in danger. The Mayor’s actions are one example of the script that automatically points to “Islamic terrorism” and as a result certain steps are taken, while the actual target of the attack is being ignored.
Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings said the Central Florida Intelligence Exchange Center (CFIEC) “had been activated” for this investigation. The CFIEC is a “Fusion Center” set up by the Department of Justice (DOJ) to enable local, state, and government agencies (especially the FBI) to share information related to terrorist incidents. This center was activated to help streamline the investigation between multiple law enforcement groups, but it also branded this as a major terrorism incident. Just so it was clear to everyone, the sheriff said that this is an incident that “we can certainly classify as a domestic terror incident.”
The media covering the Orlando Shootings could not do anything else with the initial news conference information other than see this as a “Islamic terrorist” connected to ISIS, who had just murdered at least 20 people at a gay bar and had been investigated by the FBI on two previous occasions for suspicion of terrorism. Even the FBI’s use of the term “Islamic State” (Obama Administration says “ISIL” and most news outlets use “ISIS” or the “so-called Islamic State”) reinforced the view that this was an attack by “radical Islam.”
Responsibility of the Muslim Community
At the third press conference when it was confirmed 50 were killed and 53 injured, law enforcement included Imam Muhammad Musri from the Islamic Society of Central Florida, an American flag pinned to his lapel. Imam Musri said he had “worked with local law enforcement for 20 years” and encouraged people from the “community” to cooperate fully with the FBI and other law enforcement personnel. But his presence actually reinforced the theme that this was an attack by ”radical Muslims.”
By having Imam Musri there to tell his community to cooperate with the investigation underscored an underlying message that the Muslim community shared responsibility for this shooting. Again, there was no mention of the LGBTQ community, only that “the city residents and city visitors should feel safe.” Imam Musri warned the media not to “rush to judgment” without explaining what that “judgment” was.
“We should all wait until the investigation is complete…We need to do something to stop the mass shootings in this country.”
The right-wing media would see the Imam as avoiding the real problem by trying to blame the Orlando tragedy on “mass shootings.” They would be correct that he avoided the real “problem,” but not the problem of “Islamic terrorism” that had just been reinforced by this series of press conferences.
From the very beginning, there was a consistent message in the media that this event was all about terrorism.
President Obama’s first statement about the shootings would assert, “the investigation is still on going, but we do know this was an act of terror and an act of hate.”
Both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton would make statements quickly afterwards. Although Trump’s was mostly self-congratulatory for “being right about radical Islam” and Clinton was more measured about what must be done to prevent this happening again, mentioning gun control, their messages were the same, i.e. this is an act of domestic Islamic terrorism. Even Clinton who has some history of being supportive of LGBTQ rights did not discuss the atmosphere of anti-LGBTQ feelings created in the country by the “bathroom bills” and anti-LGBTQ rights state legislation that may have led a part in this attack. Although she did allude to “From Stonewall to Laramie, and now Orlando, we’ve seen too many examples of how the struggle to live freely, openly and without fear has been met by violence” – the majority of her speech was about the fight against “radical jihadists”.
With each additional press briefing the true story would be revealed. We found out Mateen was moderately religious by all accounts of his ex-wife, father, and friends. He had no history of “radicalization” other than repeating phrases and the names of groups he had heard on the Internet. The FBI indicated there were actually three 911 calls and Mateen had indeed “pledged allegiance to Omar Bakr Al-Bagdadi [leader of ISIS]” but also had supported the Boston Bombers, and a man who he had met that became an al-Qaeda suicide bomber. The three groups have little to do with one another and ISIS and al-Nusra are enemies.
Even the FBI was forced to be “transparent” as they had promised. On Monday morning, they released a partial, redacted record and summary of Mateen’s 911 calls without any audio. Portions of the transcript – like whom he pledged allegiance to – were omitted. By Monday afternoon, when the press and politicians like Republican House Leader Paul Ryan complained, they finally released what they said was the full, unedited transcript of the calls.
Mateen did identify himself as an “Islamic soldier” and “told the negotiator to tell America to stop bombing Syria and Iraq and that is why he was ‘out here right now.’ “He claimed to have explosives in a vehicle outside the club and an explosive vest similar to those used by the Paris attackers and warned of similar attacks in the days to come. The FBI admitted they found no explosives, and so far have found no credible threats of additional violence.
Parallels to the Charleston Emanuel AME Church Shootings
Dylann Roof, the shooter at the Charleston Emanuel AME Church would also be found to have extremist views based upon his statements that he wanted “to ignite a race war” and his photos on Facebook posing with a gun and Confederate flag. After the Fox News commentary that this was an “attack on Christians” was dismissed by most of the media and federal government, Roof was charged with federal hate crimes, not domestic terrorism, and with nine counts of murder by the State of South Carolina. Before Roof’s attack on the Charleston Emanuel AME Church, one of the oldest Black churches in the US and a symbol of the community’s fight for civil rights, there had been battles all over the South about displaying the Confederate flag. Roof could have been characterized as a domestic terrorist who had become “radicalized” by white supremacist groups on the Internet. He also could have been considered “radicalized” by his reaction to the protests of the Black Lives Matter movement and the blowback by racists still wanting to maintain the Confederate flag throughout the former slave states.
In Dylann Roof’s case, the DOJ made the right and wrong call. They determined the most important aspect of his action was that it was a racist attack not only on the Black community, but also on a symbol of the community’s resistance to racism, the Charleston Emanuel AME Church. But the FBI made the wrong call when they did not step up their surveillance of white supremacist groups and did not call for a Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) program to determine how young white men like Roof become white supremacists. America decided to ignore an ingrained problem in the society and culture – institutionalized, systematic racism. But America did decide to handle the “problem” in a familiar way – call Roof’s attack a hate crime by a “lone wolf” and charge him with murder so he can be forgotten on death row in some South Carolina prison.
It has been less than one year since the Supreme Court’s same sex marriage decision on June 26, 2015 and there have been over 100 state bills attempting to legislate discrimination against the LGBTQ community.
“They fall into a handful of categories — some are bathroom bills, some let judges refuse to marry same-sex couples, some let businesses deny services to LGBT people.”
The publicity over the “bathroom” bills that allowed discrimination against transgender people was particularly strong in nearby states. In North Carolina local municipalities are prevented from passing anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ people. Also transgender people must use public restrooms corresponding to the gender on their birth certificate. Mississippi passed legislation allowing individuals and institutions with religious objections to deny services to gay couples.
As more information was revealed about the background of Omar Mateen, it became clear he was a Muslim who was influenced by what he had read about extremists on the Internet. It was also clear he displayed homophobic behavior as well as sexual identity confusion by going to gay bars and searching on gay websites. Part of the influence on his actions could also come from the homophobia dominant in many Muslim communities where LGBTQ Muslims are made to feel like outcasts and outsiders. Many LGBTQ as well as non-LGBTQ Muslims have spoken out against this homophobia in the Muslim community. Some Muslim leaders have gone on record of declaring anti-LGBTQ bigotry a problem in the Muslim community that needs to be changed.
Unlike the attack on the Charleston AME Church, the media and politicians are reluctant to call the Orlando Shootings what it is, a hate crime that was a homophobic attack not only on the LGBTQ community, but also on a symbol of safe haven for the community – Pulse Nightclub.
“It’s critical that we dedicate ourselves to Countering Violent Extremism”
The FBI has determined this was an act of Islamic domestic terrorism by a “homegrown terrorist” which justifies the need for surveillance of the Muslim community. It provides a renewed push by the Obama Administration’s Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) program that encourages Muslim and non-Muslim leaders, teachers, social workers, and others to become informants whenever they see the “signs” of “extremist behavior.” Such signs may include a Muslim teenager becoming “more religious.” The CVE program is similar to PREVENT, a counter-terrorism program in the UK that has been heavily criticized by the Muslim community and by human rights activists.
Last week the PBS News Hour followed a sensitive segment on the victims of the Orlando Shootings with a lengthy piece on the implementation of the CVE program in Muslim communities in Maryland and in suburban Virginia where the head of the All Dulles Area Muslim Society received a “community leadership award from the FBI.” Jeh Johnson, Secretary of Homeland Security, described the danger of “terrorist-inspired attacks by homegrown, home-born violent extremists. In this environment, it’s critical that we dedicate ourselves to CVE.” President Obama is requesting more than $96 million for these programs in 2017. The lone voice of Dalia Mogahed from the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding presented objections to the program.
“Its premise is that a community is predisposed to violence. For no other reason than because of their faith, they are essentially a pool of suspects and are engaged on that premise. There is a securitization of the relationship between the U.S. government and Muslims.”
Mogahed’s piece was heavily outweighed by the central message which was that here is another attack on Americans by an Islamic terrorist who became radicalized within the Muslim community. Again this community has a responsibility to cooperate with the FBI by being informants of their fellow Muslims. It was revealed only two days ago that one of Mateen’s Muslim friends had spoken to the FBI about Mateen in 2014. The FBI initiated a full investigation of Mateen and determined he wasn’t a threat.
History of Identifying Problems We Can “Fix” and Ignoring Problems We Can’t
America, as a whole, has decided to ignore another ingrained problem in the society and culture – Islamophobia that has gone mainstream and become the go to response to mass shootings. The homophobic currents in the country that provided a platform for the killings have been ignored. There were no Republican governors who apologized for the anti-LGBTQ laws they proposed or signed. There were few Christian Evangelical leaders or others who spoke against homophobia in their communities. Some writers, like Mark Joseph Stern from Slate, reminded us that there is a “long tragic history of violence on LGBTQ clubs in America” and the resistance of politicians to providing protection to the LGBTQ community still remains.
“With President Barack Obama’s support, the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act finally passed in 2009. It drew just five Republican votes in the Senate, and its fiercest opponent, Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions, criticized his colleagues for merely caving to “the political cause of the moment.”
America is choosing to view the “problem” of the Orlando shootings in a way we are comfortable with and delude ourselves that we have the answer. We call Mateen’s act terrorism, accept his self-description as an “Islamic soldier” of the non-existent “Islamic State.” Once again, the FBI ramps up surveillance and “counter-radicalization” programs against the Muslim community. We refuse to look at the anti-LGBTQ community backlash happening across the country that enabled the homophobic state-of-mind of Mateen. Again we fail to take action to address this core cultural problem. Instead the media and politicians encourage the FBI’s scapegoating of an entire community of people, American Muslims.
The media continues to be obsessed with terrorism. The outpouring of support from different groups of Americans for the LGBTQ community can’t be ignored.
Now is the time for our media and politicians to address and take responsibility for the real problem: the violent, anti-LGBTQ bigotry in America. A push for LGBTQ rights to be added to every civil rights law at the state and federal level would be a good start.