Terrorism & Narratives

For most of us the idea that things just happen runs against our basic human intuitions. We try to impose order on chaos and find patterns in everything. In doing this we forge narratives to make sense of what might be utterly senseless. In the case of the slaughter in Orlando, people are struggling to explain and understand by weaving stories that match their understanding of the world. This is not, in general, to be condemned—it is part of how we endure the awful.

The narratives of explanation can quickly turn to narratives of exploitation; the weaving of a story to advance some ideological agenda. Sticking to the stereotypes, many liberals are weaving a narrative around guns—the ease with which they can be acquired, the special danger posed by semi-automatic weapons, the terrible threat of high capacity clips, and the scariness of “assault rifles.” On this narrative, one conclusion is that if there had only been more regulation, then the massacre might have either been much smaller or not occurred at all.

While the desire to do something through the law is understandable, the alleged shooter acquired his guns legally. While he is believed to have been a domestic abuser and was investigated by the FBI, he had no criminal record. Put simply, he passed all the reasonable tests for purchasing a gun and there was no evidence that he would commit a crime.

I have written extensively about the potential effectiveness of assault weapon bans and magazine restrictions, so I will not go into detail here. However, such bans do not address existing weapons and restricting clip size just means slightly more reloading or gun switching on the part of a shooter who lacks high capacity clips. That said, improved gun safety (one must not say “control” is something broadly accepted and can have a positive impact on reducing gun crime (or so it is claimed).

There is also a narrative about the blame: the general liberal view here is to reject collective guilt: the murderer is accountable but the fact that he claimed to be Muslim does not make Muslims complicit in his crimes. Many in the LGBT community have made this point very clear: they do not condemn or hate Islam because of what one Muslim did.

I have also written extensively about group guilt and here I agree with the LGBT community: Muslims are no more to blame for the shooting than Christians are to blame for the hate of God Hates Fags.

The general narratives on the right are rather different. Right after the bloodletting, there was the usual mobilization in defense of guns and the usual stock narratives went into reruns for the thousandth time. One of these was the story that if only people in Pulse were armed, then they would have been able to shoot down the attacker—this is the classic tale of the good guy with a gun. Some take this narrative as involving some victim blaming: if only they had been smart enough (or pro-gun enough) to be armed, then they would still be alive. Some focus on the laws that forbid guns from certain places—if only people could carry guns anywhere, there would have been armed citizens ready to blast the attacker.

Unfortunately, the restrictions imposed on studying gun violence (lobbied by the NRA and gun industry) means that the statistics needed to judge this matter rationally are not available. One would think that if the gun lobby folks truly believed the good guy with a gun theory, they would be funding research to prove their point. Their opposition should make one a bit suspicious about their faith in their own claim.

Some narratives endeavored to clarify the real victims of the killings: gun owners. As always happens after a mass shooting, there was a rush to tell a speculative tale about how this is the time that Obama is going to come for people’s guns. And, as always happens, gun sales start to spike upward. And, as always, Obama does not come for people’s guns.

The right has also generally stuck to the narrative of what they insist on calling “Islamic terrorism”—that Islam is the cause of such terrorists attacks. On the one hand, it is correct to consider religion as a motivating factor. On the other hand, the idea of collective guilt in regards to huge and diverse groups is rather problematic. While the folks in God Hates Fags claim to be acting from their faith, they do not therefore represent all Christians. If a Christian attacks an abortion clinic for religious reasons, that is not Christian Terrorism and his actions do not make all Christians accountable.

Ironically, the “Islamic Terrorism” narrative of the right is in accord with the narratives of groups like ISIS (or ISIL or whatever one wants to call these evil people). Their view is that they are Islam and that all of Islam should be at war with the West (including Western Muslims). The right’s narrative is that the West should be at war with all of Islam, so there is agreement between the right and ISIS on this matter. This should be taken as a good sign that those on the right who buy this narrative should rethink their position. Insisting that all of Islam is the enemy entails that many of our nominal allies would have to be reclassified as enemies as would many of our own citizens and citizens of allied states. This seems a foolish idea.

Trump, not surprisingly, has gone beyond even this narrative—after accepting congratulations (some Trump supporters see the Orlando attack as vindicating Trump) Trump pushed for his proposed Muslim ban once again. Trump claimed that the killer was born in Afghanistan and that his ban would have prevented the attack. As is so often the case with Trump’s stories, it is mostly fiction: the alleged killer is of Afghan descent, but he was born in America. As such, Trump’s ban would not have prevented the attack. While many are endeavoring to milk the massacre for political points, Trump deserves special mention for his handling of the matter—he really stands out in regards to his exploitation of the attack.


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  1. Dennis Sceviour

    It would be interesting to know how Seddique Mateen can be a full citizen of the US, can be the President of Afghanistan, can purchase street sweeper automatics, and can ask for God’s servants to punish the homosexuals at the same time (google Seddique Mateen on YouTube). I would think the explanations are clear enough. What is there to doubt about Seddique Mateen’s narrative?

  2. Karen Lankford

    The answer to Dennis’ question about the shooters father is simple. He came to the US in 1980 when the people of Afghanistan were fighting the Soviet Union. The government was focused on the treat of communism and anyone who was against the USSR was embraced. (Remember that the Reagan administration funded Aqueda in it’s early years.) Radical Islamic groups sponsoring terrorism against the west was not on anybody’s radar. The US does not have any religious test for citizenship. Furthermore, condemnation of gays and lesbians by religious leaders in the US is all too common. In that respect, Seddique Mateen would hardly stand out. Tolerance of the LGBT community by religious groups is only a recent phenomenon.

  3. s. wallerstein

    How about this narrative?

    This is a homophobic hate crime. The killer is a repressed gay or bisexual (he visited the gay bar several times and exchanged phone numbers with other clients), who in an effort to annihilate the source of temptation tried to exterminate other gay people or perhaps in some weird way (better explained by a psychoanalyst) in killing gay people he imagined that he would “kill” his own gay desires.

    In ISIS he found justification for his own homophobia and a pretext for his desire to exterminate sources of homosexual temptation.

    We need to create a social climate where those who have homosexual desires feel free to assume them or to act on them or to at least accept them without feeling “sinful” or less “manly”.

  4. Dennis Sceviour

    Re: posted by Karen Lankford June 15, 2016 at 9:24 am

    “The answer to Dennis’ question about the shooters father is simple.”
    You have not answered how he can be a US citizen and a President of Afghanistan at the same time. Afghanistan has a death penalty for homo-sexuality.

    “Radical Islamic groups sponsoring terrorism against the west was not on anybody’s radar.”
    Caution about Islamic Jihad (Holy War against barbarians) existed in the west before Reagan.

    “The US does not have any religious test for citizenship.”
    Trump has indicated he wishes to change this, so look forward to this in the future.

    “Furthermore, condemnation of gays and lesbians by religious leaders in the US is all too common. In that respect, Seddique Mateen would hardly stand out.”
    There are probably no official statistics on the number of religious leaders in the US with a violent agenda against homosexuals. Speculation without facts can lead to a hasty generalization.

  5. Karen Lankford

    I think that you may have missed my point. Thirty years ago, our society had very different attitudes both towards religion and homosexuality. People of faith, especially if they were anti-communist, were assumed to be good people. Open gay bashing was acceptable. I was alive then. People would say that gays with AIDS deserved to die. Kids who were even suspected of being queer got beat up in school and their parents often threw them out of the house. Homosexual intercourse was a crime in many states. As late as Hurricane Katrina, Pat Robinson was saying that these kinds of natural disasters were God’s punishment of America for tolerance of homosexuality and abortion. And there is still a very strong anti-gay element in the Christian community. Homosexual intercourse is considered a sin by the Catholic Church, as well as many others. Part of the Anglican Church recently broke away because the church began ordaining openly gay priests. If you look up the Southern Poverty Law centers list of hate groups that they are watching, you will find plenty of anti-gay churches on their lists. Churches that are fully welcoming to gays and lesbians are harder to find than those claim to love the sinner but hate the sin.

    It is not at all surprising that an INS officer 30 years ago would have looked at this guy and seen nothing unamerican in this man’s beliefs. Now people have become aware that religious zelots shot up abortion clinics and fly planes into buildings. Now most Americans see gays as human beings deserving the same rights as straight people. But even today, there is a significant segment of the population who believe that their personal religious beliefs give them the right to discriminate against gays and lesbians and are they have been trying to pass special “religious liberty” laws to protect themselves from lawsuits when they do. So, even today, if an immigrant got the right case worker, his virulent homophobic hatred might not seem like a big deal, nothing worse than he hears at the Thanksgiving dinner table.

  6. Dennis Sceviour

    The List of organizations designated by the Southern Poverty Law Center as hate groups identifies a mere forty-two anti-LGBT organizations that call for the death penalty. As a reminder, forty-nine persons were shot at the Pulse nightclub. From the point of view of a pure cost-benefit ratio, the numbers do stand out. This is an indication that Seddique Mateen has very uncommon American beliefs. His video narratives are of recent vintage and should not require a long historical background to understand.

  7. Dennis Sceviour

    “As a reminder, forty-nine persons were shot at the Pulse nightclub. From the point of view of a pure cost-benefit ratio, the numbers do stand out. This is an indication that Seddique Mateen has very uncommon American beliefs. His video narratives are of recent vintage and should not require a long historical background to understand.”

    No. “violence is as American as cherry pie,”. To quote H. Rap Brown, former minister of justice, for the Black Panther party.

    Seddique Mateen and Anders Breivik have far more in common with each other than they do with the rest of humanity. This is not just in relation to the scale of their atrocities; both their political narratives are spurious, just existing to grant themselves permission for their atrocities. Is Anders Breivik as American as apple pie, or is Seddique Mateen as Norwegian as Fårikål.

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