The Meaning of the Pulse Nightclub Attack

(Kevin Kolczynski/Reuters)
There is no evidence that Omar Mateen was specifically targeting gay and lesbian people.

Last week, federal prosecutors produced evidence that the monster who killed 49 people in Orlando at the gay-friendly Pulse nightclub on June 12, 2016, was planning to attack Disney World. “Disney Springs,” a shopping and entertainment complex, was the original object of Omar Mateen’s terror — and he had even bought a baby stroller in which to conceal his guns. But, as he was surveying the location, he got spooked by the police presence around Disney and came up with a Plan B.

Hoping for free rein over as many defenseless victims as he could find, this coward whipped out his phone and typed into Google, “Orlando nightclubs.” Pulse was the first hit that came up. Mateen drove there and infiltrated his second-choice target, based on nothing more than its location and vulnerability.

In the aftermath of the attack, the LGBT community that had viewed Pulse as a safe haven was understandably distraught. The terrorist attack was the deadliest act of violence against LGBT people in U.S. history. Countless people and groups across social, religious, and political lines expressed support for a community that had suffered its gravest tragedy. It was widely assumed that a radical Islamist capable of such an unthinkable act had to have been motivated by a special animus toward gay people. Indeed, initial media reports were full of hearsay and speculation that the killer was gay or had some kind of relationship to the club that had combined with his religious faith to produce this murderous rampage. Some enterprising leftists even tried to pin the attack on America’s culture of religious “conservatism.” Most Americans, however, generally agreed that the attack appeared to be the first act of Islamist terrorism on U.S. soil to specifically target this particular class of people.

Now, thanks to cell-phone data and other evidence submitted in the trial of the shooter’s wife (she was acquitted for reasons unrelated to the cell-phone evidence), we know that Mateen didn’t seem to care about the LGBT community. Happenstance brought him to those people. Had less security been on hand at Disney Springs, he could have chosen that spot as his target. Had it appeared easier to target Eve Orlando, another club that he scoped out by using Google Maps, he could have chosen that spot. Had another club been a closer drive, he could have chosen it.

The FBI has found no evidence to corroborate speculation that the shooter had visited the club before, that he used gay dating apps, or that he otherwise had any personal vendetta against gay people. Instead, he proclaimed his loyalty to ISIS and screamed invective at America for its military activity abroad — but no one, including a negotiator at the scene of the shooting, heard him say anything about gay people. Judging by the shooter’s Google search history, he may have never even realized Pulse was known to be a gay club. Its patrons were, unfortunately, just the nearest group of relatively unprotected infidels.

As human beings, we long for transcendent meaning — especially in the face of horrific events. Many of us who celebrated Easter and Passover this past week find immense comfort in the belief that there is a God, and that therefore the world has a purpose. We have a reason for being. The vast majority of people want the world to be more than the unrelenting chaos that nihilists say it is. But with that characteristic of our nature comes a weakness: the desire to see patterns where there are none. It is all too natural to imbue events with social or even cosmic significance that they don’t have.

The Pulse nightclub shooting was not an unprecedented political statement. It was another act of Islamist violence — like 9/11 and the Bataclan theatre massacre before it — and it was motivated by nothing more than that same suicidal religious fantasy.

The Pulse nightclub shooting was not an unprecedented political statement.

Many politicians and activists have tried to exploit the tragedy of the Pulse attack by, understandably, zeroing in on the identity of the victims. Donald Trump’s campaign and supporters pitched his candidacy to LGBT voters by saying his policies would be tougher on terrorism. Like so many others, Trump assumed the attacker’s motives, speculating that the shooter chose to “execute gay and lesbian citizens, because of their sexual orientation.” On the other end of the political spectrum, writers at Slate and elsewhere used the attack to launch broadsides against religious conservatives, assuming that somehow their culture of “gay-bashing” must have created an environment that brought on this attack.

We should exercise caution and skepticism in imparting special significance to acts of evil. It wasn’t homophobia or repressed homosexuality or cultural influence that made a terrorist pick those particular club-goers to be the victims of his long-planned attack. It was one man’s allegiance to a twisted ideology — and the impersonal choice of the Google algorithm.

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