The social media personality and would-be president was quick to inquire via Twitter whether Barack Obama is “going to finally mention the words radical Islamic terrorism? If he doesn't he should immediately resign in disgrace!” As usual, Donald Trump slips below an already-low Republican bar: this obsession with calling the enemy by its name, of course, is a standard talking point.
"The broader solution is a commander-in-chief willing to speak the truth, willing to name the enemy — radical Islamic terrorism — and willing to do whatever it takes to defeat radical Islamic terrorism," said Ted Cruz last December.
The right wing wants Obama to say the word Islamic, some talisman against terror, because it wants to foment hatred of Muslims. This week, Hillary Clinton obliged them, saying that she was fine using either “radical jihadist terrorism” or “radical Islamist terrorism,” because they “mean the same thing.” Obama has declined to do so because saying that the U.S. is at war with Islam, combined with the fact that the U.S. is at war in multiple Muslim-majority countries, might further cement the idea that it is.
Most everyone, however, is now comfortable condemning the act as terrorism, an epithet that renders the assailant a known evil and the victims empathetically American. But initially this attack, like others, fell into an unclear category and was still “being investigated as a possible act of terrorism, either domestic or international.”
"We do have suggestions that the individual may have leanings toward that particular ideology," said FBI Special Agent Ronald Hopper in the early hours, referring to Islamist militancy.
Somehow, dozens of bloodied bodies could not speak for themselves: the question of whether an act is terrorism, and not just an all-American mass shooting, is considered to be a matter of discerning what was in the killer’s mind — and, typically, whether he was Muslim.
This selectivity has not gone unnoticed: after Dylann Roof massacred black churchgoers in Charleston, and after Robert Dear did the same at a Colorado Planned Parenthood clinic, there were demands that the white killers also be designated terrorists. There is no perfect word to describe horrible things like these: we need frames to think about and understand things in our lives, big and small. But terrorism is a particularly bad frame for describing violence because it obliterates our ability to think carefully and critically about why it happens. It also, in this case, helps elevate Omar Mateen, the obscure and troubled man who committed this mass murder, into a world-historical figure.
Mateen reportedly called 911 and pledged allegiance to ISIS during his rampage , and ISIS quickly embraced him as its agent. Former Congressman Barney Frank seemed to do so as well, saying that it was “an attack against gay people” that “does not reflect a general deterioration of our standing in America…It reflects the virulence of the hatred in this sector of Islam."
As Rukmini Callimachi writes in the New York Times, “Was the killer truly acting under orders from the Islamic State, or just seeking publicity and the group’s approval for a personal act of hate? For the terror planners of the Islamic State, the difference is mostly irrelevant.”
Government and media, however, have become complicit in ISIS’ ambition to project power beyond its operational limits. Identifying Mateen or the San Bernardino shooters as ISIS agents benefits ISIS by legitimating American franchises to which they have no direct connection and christening any disaffected person making use of easy access to high-powered firearms bona fide operatives of the self-described caliphate. Simply put, giving ISIS more credit than it is due unduly aggrandizes them, and in doing so bolsters a framework for disaffected people to violently express themselves.
After the Charlie Hebdo attacks, former FBI counterterrorism agent and Brennan Center for Justice fellow Michael German criticized government policy as counterproductive: “Telling every anti-social misfit and petty criminal that they can achieve notoriety and influence government policy by acting out violently with whatever tools are at hand isn’t an effective counterterrorism strategy.”
The debate over whether to prosecute terrorists inside the criminal justice system or via extra-legal channels generally hinges on civil liberties. But German says that treating these attacks as crimes is also important because it puts them in context and pushes back against their outsized glorification. Currently, government policy is intent on creating more of the very monsters it professes its dedication to destroy.
“15 years into the global war on terrorism, we’ve identified the number one threat: a group that didn’t exist at the time we started the war, and is actually in conflict with the group that we did initiate the war against,” says German by phone. “I think it’s past time for our intelligence and law enforcement officials to have a more objective and less politicized discussion of violence…in the United States and our counterterrorism response.”
As far as we know, ISIS is part of this attack only because it gave a mass murderer a framework within which to make sense of his personal anger and alienation. As Olivier Roy has written, "This is not, then, the radicalization of Islam, but the Islamization of radicalism."
According to various reports, Mateen was bullied in school, inconsistent in his religiosity. A mentally ill gun enthusiast who aspired to be a police officer, Mateen had previously worked for the Florida Department of Corrections and most recently as a security guard, and brutally abused his ex-wife. It has also been reported that Mateen was a brooding regular at Pulse, and exchanged messages via the gay dating and hook up app Jack’d. Classifying Mateen as a terrorist, or a member of ISIS, means that we don’t have to think about the easy availability of assault rifles, or about the intimate relationship between sexism and homophobia.
For the American right in particular, fixing the mass murder within the framework of Islamic terrorism provides a rhetorical escape hatch, eschewing mention of their uncomfortably shared anti-gay animus and the fact that most victims are the very Latinos who Trump incites hatred against.
Whatever connection Mateen had to overseas Islamism appears to have been limited to his muddled and troubled mind. He had allegedly declared contradictory allegiance to both Shiite Hezbollah and Sunni ISIS. It is increasingly clear that Mateen’s story is an American one.
Erasing U.S.-born Mateen’s American context, and linking him wholesale to some faraway Muslim place, makes it impossible to understand who he was and what might have motivated him. Like much terrorism discussion, it absolves the United States and makes the problem about something and somewhere else.