On Sunday, Omar Mateen committed the worst mass shooting in U.S. history, and the worst attack on U.S. soil since 9/11. As soon as Mateen’s name was published, the faux debate began again: Was this about “radical Islamic terrorism” or gun control? About religion or “political correctness”? About another “intelligence failure” or about the consequences of empire abroad?
These debates miss the point: They aim to describe what the problem is “about” — that is, to validate our individual political beliefs and to absolve ourselves from the sin of partisanship. The question should be: How will we make sure that this mass shooting remains the worst in American history?
So let’s talk about ISIS.
Yes, Omar Mateen did declare allegiance to ISIS just before committing the attack. So did the shooters in San Bernardino, the man who shot at a “draw Muhammad” event in Texas, and many other “lone wolf” terror attackers. But in those cases, and many others, the lone wolves had little formal or logistical connections to terror groups: they absorb propaganda, and they kill.
This new breed of terrorism is designed to evade the information age: Rather than seek out and communicate with prospective terrorists, leaving themselves vulnerable to surveillance from the National Security Agency and other counter-terror groups, ISIS simply tells those sympathetic to its cause that they ought to carry out violence in its name, and say so. “Do not ask for anyone’s permission,” the New York Times reports ISIS spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani saying in September 2014 — simply declare ISIS sympathy, and carry out an attack.
Of course, not every attack on the West is carried out by lone wolves: The shootings and bombings in Paris in November were orchestrated over two continents and within a team of people, as were similar attacks in Mumbai, Tunisia, and elsewhere.
So, could the attack on a gay club in Orlando be considered “radical Islamic terrorism”? Yes. Could it be considered a hate crime? Yes. Domestic terrorism? Yes. Gun violence? Yes.
It seems to fit the bill on all accounts: He was a shooter who proclaimed his allegiance to a religious cult, and he meant to terrorize the larger group of people — Americans, gay people — to which the victims belonged, for apparently political ends. Much of this is still under investigation.
But the question remains: What should we do about it?
Certainly, antagonizing American Muslims — as Donald Trump and his supporters seem to think is the point — by calling for a “complete shutdown” of Muslim travel in the U.S. is exactly what we should not do. Not only is there no strong correlation between immigrant or refugee status and tendency towards terrorism — Mateen was born in the U.S. — such tactics achieve nothing except playing into the narrative of “Western Culture” versus “Islamic Extremism.”
That narrative requires that Muslims denounce their faith as a violent one and accept the West as anti-religious. Neither point is true, and both fuel further confrontation aimed at deepening the divide — that’s certainly ISIS’s goal, but it shouldn’t be ours.
Take it from ISIS spokesman Adnani, just last month, again according to the Times: “The smallest action you do in the heart of [the United States] is dearer to us than the largest action by us,” he said, “and more effective and more damaging to them.”
Why? Because terror attacks are media events. ISIS previously encouraged supporters contemplating carrying out attacks to take hostages, so that they would allow time for television media to begin broadcasting the event live, while it was still taking place. The goal is not only to kill: It is to be seen killing.
And so too is Donald Trump a media event — one that has been used in terrorist propaganda.
It doesn’t matter to him that the United States and its allies have militarily dominated the physical caliphate of the Islamic State — that is, the territory they actually control in Syria and Iraq — while propping up Syria’s genocidal dictator and looking the other way from atrocious Russian airstrikes on civilians.
What matters to Donald “Bomb The Shit Out Of Them” Trump, as we know, is to be seen killing.
We are already bombing ISIS, and it hasn’t helped to stem the “lone wolf” attacks that have so captured the world’s attention. Indeed, this new breed of terrorism thrives on American militarism: It is at once nearly untraceable, yet easy enough to take credit for after the fact. It hides itself in a sea of intelligence — Mateen was apparently interviewed twice by the FBI in recent years — yet justifies endless, fruitless assaults on privacy rights.
There are ways to combat what happened in Orlando. The first is obvious: common sense gun laws that expand background checks, limit access to assault weapons, and ensure that mentally unstable spousal abusers, no matter their politics, don’t have the ability to kill 50 people.
Second, marginalized groups in America — this time, the LGBT community — cannot be forced to make the false choice between their own safety and “political correctness.” That is a vile argument that uses suffering and fear to sustain a political ideology, and in that way benefits from terror just as ISIS does. That “political incorrectness” has so often been used to justify violence against the gay community in ways identical to how it is used against Muslims is just a stinging afterthought for the victims of terror.
The third and most important way to prevent another Orlando requires acting in direct opposition to the ISIS propaganda strategy: When Americans are isolated by religious hatred, we must work to bring them out of the shadows and into the fabric of society. Muslim communities need to know they can rely on law enforcement to protect them, not target them.
In the aftermath of November’s Paris attacks and January’s Brussels attacks, counterterrorism experts repeatedly pointed to the relationship between Muslim communities and law enforcement in America as a strong deterrent to terrorism of the same nature happening with more frequency in the U.S. Countless op-eds and articles outlined the decades-long relationships between law endorsement and American Muslims.
And in the wake of the arrest of a Paris conspirator in Brussels and subsequent Brussels airport bombings this year, which highlighted the insular nature of Brussels’ Mollenbeek neighborhood, officials re-stated what they have continuously said about counterterrorism in the Internet age: It’s about communication. A Politico Magazine profile looked at Dearborn, Michigan, “the closest thing America has to a Mollenbeek,” and its wildly different relationship with police:
Ron Haddad is Dearborn’s chief of police, and he says he gets one question a lot when he travels around the country. “Someone will come up to me and put their finger in my face, and they’re already angry,” he says. “They say, ‘Will the people in your community report acts of terror to you?’“
What they mean is: Will Muslims turn in other Muslims?
Haddad has a ready answer. “Not only would they, they do,” he says. “They’ve done it.”
The networks of trust and communication that exist in Dearborn, and nationwide, are among the strongest answers we have to terrorism meant to divide and silence. It is not “politically correct” to say that we must aggressively pursue religious tolerance as a culture and a politics — nor does it satisfy the national instinct for revenge like bombs do. But if our aim is to confront violent extremism — “radical Islamic terrorism” — head on, how appropriate that the most effective answer is to embrace what makes America exceptional in the first place.
Photo: Friends and family members embrace outside the Orlando Police Headquarters in Orlando, Florida, June 12, 2016. REUTERS/Steve Nesius