Yes Omar Mateen was Muslim. Yes he was a terrorist who was radicalized. But was he part of an ideological cause that he was acting in support of by committing this massacre in Orlando? If he was indeed a “lone wolf” as Clinton and other law enforcement officers have called him, did he have a specific wolf pack that he had pledged allegiance to but was acting independently from? So far, evidence suggests that he was not. The evidence that does exist points only to confusion and mystery. Therefore the only official, historical explanation that his heinous act will receive will be the one give to it. We need to be very careful in crafting that explanation.
When I started teaching in 2005, my school had a few Bloods and maybe a Crip or two in the student body. The school and neighborhood had just come out of a negotiated gang truce that got the two sides to agree not to operate near the school. There was not that many actual gang members in the school, but many more students flashed gang signs, scrawled gang logos on their notebooks, and wore the colors. They were not in the gang, but they used the label as a means of bestowing authority on themselves. If some of these pseudo-factions of fifteen-year-old wannabe gang members started a brawl in the cafeteria, the last thing school administrators would want to do is declare that the Bloods and the Crips had a gang war during second lunch. First, it would be inaccurate. Second, it would make whoever started that fight appear more powerful than they actually were, which would entice other students to follow them or emulate them. It would bestow legitimacy to criminals and thugs who are hungry for it, and who need it to to fuel their propaganda.
Mateen was no more a member of ISIS than my students were members of a gang. Like them, he was a poser. And one who hadn’t even done his homework, apparently claiming allegiance at one point to Hezbollah, at another point to Al Qaeda, and finally to ISIS–all of which are mortal enemies of the other. Like most of his fellow Americans, he probably was not even that clear on the difference between Shia and Sunni. To grant him a posthumous battlefield commission to ISIS foot soldier is a) misleading and inaccurate, b) aiding and abetting actual ISIS foot soldiers and their followers, and c) more than that sick fucker deserves, almost like granting his last request.
It is also unclear how much religious ideology motivated Mateen to commit these murders. It seems just as likely he was driven by an unhinged, violent personality, or by extreme homophobia, or by the bipolar disorder his estranged wife claims he had, than by radical Islamic beliefs.
According to a survivor, Patience Carter, who was in the bathroom of Pulse with Mateen, he told them that he was doing this to stop the bombing of his country, and that he would not kill the remaining African Americans because they had suffered enough in their own history. What country was he talking about, since he was from Florida? The supposed ISIS Caliphate? Afghanistan, where is parents are from, but ISIS is not? And why did he think killing predominantly hispanic-American gays–and some African-Americans, until he decided not to–was the best way to stop said bombing?
There will not be answers to these questions. So why should authorities categorically label his motivations–which in this case are probably unknowable–as one thing or the other? To drape his body in the shroud of radical Islam elevates his act to something that it may not have been; gives a battlefield ‘win’ to actual terrorists even though the massacre had nothing to do with their fight; and throws free propaganda into the social media cesspool from which unhinged people like Mateen draw so much rage and hate.
This massacre, like most recent massacres–be they “mass shootings” or “radical Islamic terrorism” or “extreme Christian Nationalist terrorism”–does not have a simple, clear explanation. Even when more facts become known, the crime is not likely to make much sense, mainly because the killer did not make much sense. It is understandable to want to grab for an explanation that will help make sense of it, but sometimes that comfort is illusory.
People who argue that we should more widely apply the label of radical Islam to people and groups presumably believe that doing so will help us fight terrorism more effectively. Without getting into that general debate, what would labeling Mateen an Islamic fundamentalist help us accomplish? Would it adjust our potential-terrorist profile to catch future versions of him? He was already profiled and investigated extensively by the FBI. If it turns out that law enforcement missed something because they were not looking for some special Islamic fundamentalist sign–whatever those could be–then it may make sense to use the term more. We’ll see.
Whatever the benefits, they need to be balanced against costs of doing so: elevating incoherent ravings to a coherent ideology; helping to make him a martyr to a cause that he was not actually part of; giving credence to opportunistic terrorists’ claims of credit for the attack; providing a powerful propaganda tool to terrorists. Those costs do not even broach the wider costs of taking the argument one step further, as Trump has done: making not just other terrorists complicit in this attack–which they are not–but all Muslims; driving a wedge between local American Muslim communities and law enforcement; fueling the false equivalency between the West and the “civilization” of the terrorists. What would doing that accomplish that would actually be effective against the real terrorist threat?