An act of Islamic terrorism? Anti-gay hate crime? The attack on the Pulse nightclub in Orlando almost immediately generated these competing narratives. Within a day of the event, social media and conventional punditry were abuzz with certainties accompanied by contempt for the propensity of competing narratives to overlook the obvious.
A poorly-crafted but widely-circulated meme on twitter and Facebook declares “if a man says he is a woman, the president and the left immediately accept this and call him ‘her’ but when a jihadist says he is a jihadist, the left’s response is ‘let’s not jump to any conclusions.’” Another mocks this attitude: “So now I should be Islamaphobe or bigot – can’t I just be both? – the conundrum.”
The structure of the two memes is the same: the ideological enemy (the Islamist-coddling, gender-chaotic left or the religiously and sexually intolerant right) is certain about what is really uncertain, i.e., the right to individual self-definition or the evil of homosexuality and Islam, and uncertain about the one thing that is certain – the existential threat of radical Islam or the violence embedded in prejudice.
Each of these narratives seek to capture what their authors consider the one thing – the “obvious self-evident truth” that lets us get a handle on the trauma. Of course, we were not there and we cannot know. Despite what Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti said, we are not all LGBTQ now. Still less are we those specific Latino Pulse patrons whose desperate last moments we witnessed only as images on a screen, and not even images but images thrown up by images.
Few of us have bothered to investigate the publicly available doctrines and ideologies of the Islamic State movement to which Omar Mateen pledged allegiance during the shooting, and even fewer are able to place that movement in any kind of historical, sociological, or religious context. But it is almost as if the greater our distance from the event, the more clearly we think we can see it and the more we identify ourselves as the victims (never the perpetrators) of the trauma.
It is our distance from the thing, the one thing, that lets us see it for what it is and, in doing so, exempt ourselves from it.
But that one thing has a way of crossing the very distance through which we can see it, including us in it and ceasing to be one thing. A swirl of conflicting signs proliferate on the surface that separates us from having been there and they suck us into that surface.
An example: according to the member of his small mosque who first reported him to the FBI, Omar Mateen’s radicalization apparently began when he found himself moved by tapes of the Yemeni-based imam who had inspired the first American-born suicide bomber, also a member of that small mosque. He had reportedly been frequenting jihadi websites. His radicalization was prompted by images thrown off by images on a screen.
He appeared to know little about the nuances of doctrine that distinguish one militant Islamic group from another. He had very little interaction with people from his mosque. Not long ago, he claimed to be a member of Hezbollah, a Shi’ite militia. The Islamic State, to which Mateen claimed allegiance the night of the shooting, wants to wipe Shi’ite Islam off the face of the earth.
An American man from an Afghani immigrant family, Mateen never changed the way he dressed or his appearance, never changed his drinking habits, never altered his relationship with his family. He had a marine “Semper Fi” bumper sticker on his car, wore NYPD shirts in selfie photos, and aspired to be a cop. At a class barbecue for a training academy he attended a few years ago, he refused sausages from the grill, saying he was allergic to pork.
But when asked if he was a Muslim, he angrily denied it. He was a long way from Syria, a long way from Iraq. He was a very long way from what passes among jihadists for true Islam. He wasn’t there, but thanks to the signs proliferating on the screen, he thought he could the one essential thing there was to see. He was wrong. And this is the one essential thing about him.
Mateen began developing a hypermasculine persona early in his school career, a pudgy, bullied kid who became a bully himself. He was suspended multiple times for hitting other children and making threats, and had to transition to three separate high schools because of violent outbursts. Transitioning from adolescence to early adulthood, he became a bodybuilder and developed a macho attitude to match his new physique. He dreamed of becoming a police officer, enforcer of law and order. He failed, and had to settle for life as a rent-a-cop.
Like so many men who become attached to an image of themselves as masculine defender of order, he was disturbed by racial difference and homosexuality. And Mateen specifically chose a Latino gay club as the target of his attack. A co-worker at the security company that employed Mateen has said he made extreme homophobic and racist comments.
Mateen’s father claimed that he was enraged by the sight of two men kissing in downtown Miami. But his ex-wife has said that she believes him to have been gay, and a former classmate from police academy claims Mateen once tried to pick him up at a bar. Pulse drag performers remember him regularly drinking there and complaining about his strict father.
Other men claimed he contacted them on the gay apps Jack’d and Grindr. A Latino man has said that he had an ongoing sexual relationship with Mateen, that Mateen had a strong attraction to Latino men, and that he felt they treated him cruelly. Mateen desired masculinity, but since he identified with the masculinity he desired, his desire was mixed with an aggression toward himself and the object of that desire.
Mateen could not be what he desired so long as the desire for that object remained burning in him, but his distance from that desired masculinity made it appear to be the one essential thing there was to be. So like so many homophobes with repressed homosexual feelings, he had to kill that desire by killing what stimulated it. He was wrong. And this is the one essential thing about him.
Signs on a screen lure us, promise certainty, promise to lead us to the one essential thing that unlocks the truth of the trauma. And they do not fail to do so, though not because they tell us the truth about Omar Mateen. The very proliferation of narratives and counternarratives, the transcripts, the published or video-streamed press conferences with investigators or interviews with family members, acquaintances, and witnesses have rendered Mateen into a screen on which the one essential thing that drives us is projected.
So while we know nothing about Mateen and while the trauma of Orlando is not ours, these signs tell us a certain truth about the world we inhabit and the way we inhabit it.
Ours is a world that refuses to yield a narrative in which we can all live, and it is a world where each of us longs for such a narrative. It is no longer a world that can celebrate the eclipse of meaning, the infinite deferral of the transcendental signified that would anchor the endless rhythm of desire and disappointment, not even for the privileged few who thought they could afford to celebrate this eclipse in the last decades of the last millennium.
That celebration is over. In our world, this eclipse is accompanied by a threat of a violence that would reduce us to nothing before it kills us. We have long since lost the luxury of a disinterested intellectual contemplation of differance. Even if we cannot know the one essential thing, we must. So from a distance that we hope is preserved but don’t quite believe can be preserved, we seize on the details that tell us what we must do to keep ourselves safe because those are the details that confirm our sense of the self that is worth saving and our sense of what must be discarded in order to save that self.
In the ideology of the Islamic State, that which threatens the self that is worth saving is the unforgivable sin of shirk – idolatry, opposition to the oneness of God. But in the contemporary world, according to this ideology, shit is everywhere. Yes, yes, the idolators are out there in the world of the crusaders, in the West, but more importantly, they are hidden here, among those we thought were our own.
Muslims who associate with infidels are idolators, as are Muslims who participate in democracy, Muslims who compromise in their personal morality or in their ritual piety, or Muslims who associate with or even tolerate the existence of any of these other Muslims. The entire world is ablaze with idols, and every last idol and every last idolator must be eliminated. Until that can be done, we must separate ourselves from all that idolatry while incessantly attacking it.
This process has no easily discernible end because everything that promises to deliver the one thing may become contaminated by idolatry. After all, al Qaeda promised the one thing, but it has been contaminated. All the scholars over a certain age have been contaminated. All that obscures our grasp of the one essential thing, all that distracts us from it, must go. What is left will be the self that is worth saving.
Omar Mateen may not have had a very deep understanding of this ideology. But the Omar Mateen that appears symptomatically on our news feeds and television screens is an enactment of it. Whether figured as a jihadi terrorist or hate crime perpetrator, Mateen appears as someone whose act was an attempt to secure a distance between a self worth saving and a world that was so close and so splintered as to pose a constant threat to that self.
It may be comforting for some of us to say in the wake of Orlando that we are all LGBT now or, if homosexuality threatens us too much, to say that we are all Orlando now. But inasmuch as we have so quickly taken hold of one thing that is certain in all of this and inasmuch as this one thing is the thing that functions to preserve that self worth saving at the expense of everything that might obscure or distract us from it, we might rather ask ourselves something else. Are we not perhaps all Omar Mateen now?
Alan Jay Richard, Ph.D., is an independent scholar and activist currently affiliated with Realistic Living, a nonprofit community in rural north Texas that experiments with new forms of collective Christian practice. He has been involved in activism since his work with the AIDS group ACT-UP in Syracuse during the late 1980s, leading to a 20-year career in public health epidemiology and research. Since leaving that career to work in the religion field, he has also been involved in environmental and anti-poverty activism. Along with his Realistic Living work, he serves as president of Citizens Organizing for Resources and Environment, and facilitator for the Fannin County Good Food Project, an effort to address rural food insecurity. He is currently interested in developing educational and spiritual formation paths for unconventional and subversive ministries.