As we grapple with the stunned silence of the mind that is an appropriate reaction to the horrific mass slaughter of more than 50 LGBT people during their celebration of Latin@ and queer love, we resort to well-worn templates to explain his violence: Was Omar Mateen an Islamic Terrorist motivated by a political-religious ideology alien to the U.S. or another mass shooter motivated by a anti-lgbt hatred all to familiar to the U.S.?
As the New York Times reports Republicans are more likely to use the Islamic Terrorist narrative whereas Democrats are drawn to the mass shooter narrative.
It is clear why. Branding Omar Mateen as an Islamic Terrorist makes it easier to declare his act as something exceptional or un-American. Thus, the same Republican politicians who send their prayers or congratulate themselves on Twitter for their insights into terrorism don’t have to confront the depth of politically fueled hatred that characterizes our polity: hate towards Latin@s persons, towards LGBT people, and others who are cast out of “our” body politic because we racialized or sexualized them into the status of “minority.”
By casting Omar Mateen as a mass shooter on the other hand, Democrats can fold the event into the sequence of “senseless” and “inexplicable” violence that bathes in blood U.S. geography. Doing so offers a pragmatic opening to discuss whether the second amendment should give every resident in the U.S. the option to possess and use weapons of war; yet this narrative sanitizes U.S. politics as well: It negates the tapestry of political terror and injustice that is woven into our politics.
This terror is not inflicted upon us simply from the outside as the Republican narrative wants to make us belief, neither is it somehow visited on us out of the abyss of deranged minds in the form of senseless violence as the Democratic narrative assumes.
As queer Latin@ theologian Vincent Cervantes writes in Religion Dispatches, we are not discursively prepared to talk about the specter of a brown man killing other brown people. After all, we know “all too well, that it is ‘terrorism’ when the victims are white Americans—otherwise it’s simply a ‘hate crime.” But, then again, it can only be a hate crime if the perpetrators are white Americans, otherwise it is “terrorism.’” Thus, we are trained to expect the distinction between hate crimes or acts of terrorism to maintain our racialized map of violence. Cervantes thus reminds us that our political and mediated discourse is not designed to speak in ways that honor the bodies of those who were celebrating the complexities of racial and sexual lives.
At the same time our discourse seems designed to make it impossible for us to acknowledges the truth about our body politic: that ours is an imperial republic, which wages war abroad for more than 25 years and which is built on the fruits of slavery and exploitation. Denigrating and exploiting other humans into non-citizens, sub-citizens, non-humans are part of our DNA, the instructions to replicate this Republic. Thus, the Islamic terror versus deranged mind hate crime narrative overlook that terror is not alien to us and is not inexplicable but rather to familiar and explicable. It occludes our responsibility as Americans.
When Bilal Qureshi argues for the need of fellow U.S. Muslims to acknowledge that this community continues a problematic discourse about LGBT love, I wish we would hear a similar sustained reflection from U.S. evangelical Christians, who export their hate-inducing rhetoric globally and support the death-penalty for LGBT people abroad or within the U.S.
Given this Christian tapestry of hate Omar Mateen does not seem like an Islamic Terrorist outsider but rather like the model outcome of an interreligious dialogue: someone ratifying a shared interreligious American theology of hate.
Islam or what Omar Mateen took for it based on his internet research – like Christianity or what Right Wing extremist politicians takes for it based on their political needs – provides a framework that allows him to shape and externalize a profound animus that seemed to rearrange a deranged self. We hear that he was abusive to his wife, that at his previous job he expressed the wish to kill gays, blacks or Jews – the objects of so much republican derision and violence.
President Obama describes Omar Mateen as self-radicalized through the Internet. We know from sociological research that respondents with otherwise vague feelings of social hatred will express these feelings more clearly if they find socially shared language to do so. For example, conservative Christians objecting to same-sex marriage often give vague and unclear answers if asked for their reasons in an open format.
However, if one asks in a closed format for their reasons by offering them language widely circulated by the Christian Right media, these vague and unclear answer coalesce into a coherent position: gay marriage undermines the stability of the U.S. family. Likewise, Omar Mateen’s self-radicalization may have offered him language to shape his animus in terms that are widely acceptable across a religious spectrum.
That he chose the language offered in videos and websites coming from the penumbra of radical Islam makes sense given that his family has had first hand experience of the insanity of the U.S. wars in the so-called Muslim world.
Part of this insanity has come home in the form of a cultural norm of masculinity that celebrates a man’s (!) right to kill. Omar Mateen grew up into an American masculinity reshaped by the exigencies of creating warriors to supply the pipeline of a war that seems unending. Training a person to kill another human requires a training that overrides a foundational sense of connectedness. As John Paul II reminds us killing another disrupts something profoundly human in us. Even if the killing is framed as justified, it harms our humanity.
The celebration of the lone wolf who “rights the wrong” of the world with violence and guns by killing others who are encoded to be indubitably bad is deeply woven into the American imagination. Thus, this imagination trains us clamor for the one strong man whose acts of political disruption will shatter and save our polity.
This terror is explicable because his deranged mind reflects both something profoundly American and not-American. His terror is American in the sense that Omar Mateen’s hatred reflects a basic affect of the U.S. body politic, namely a theologically supported construction of the other who needs to be barred, excluded, and killed. It is un-American in a sense that it uses a language of Islam that is used by those who kill fellow Americans sent to do the imperial republican bidding, young people who are also many times minoritized persons.
And it is American in the sense that the violence of our international political investments has come home in the form of the violent men we create and celebrate.
Ludger Viefhues-Bailey is Professor of Philosophy, Gender, and Culture at LeMoyne College. His work integrates philosophical modes of analysis with those pertaining to gender and cultural studies. He is the author of Between a Man and a Woman? Why Conservatives Oppose Same-Sex Marriage (Columbia University Press, 2010) and Beyond the Philosopher’s Fear. A Cavellian Reading of Gender, Origin, and Religion in Modern Skepticism (Ashgate, 2007). Currently he is working on a book entitled No Separation. How Religion Makes the Secular Nation State.