Orlando and Trump’s America

Source: Roger Cohen in The New York Times, June 13

Omar Mateen, the Florida shooter who had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, just ushered Donald Trump to the White House, Britain out of the European Union, Marine Le Pen to the French presidency, and the world into a downward spiral of escalating violence.

Aged 29, Mateen is the Gavrilo Princip of the early 21st century, the young man who ripped up an old, decaying political order. Like the 19-year-old Bosnian Serb nationalist whose bullets ignited World War I, Mateen has set a spark to a time of inflammable anger.

Of course, these somber imaginings may prove to be no more than that. Mateen has not yet changed the world; he may never.

But there is no question that the largest mass shooting in American history comes at a time of particular unease. In both the United States and Europe, political and economic frustrations have produced a groundswell against the status quo and an apparent readiness to make a leap in the dark. Washington and Brussels have become bywords for paralysis.

Trump and “Brexit” represent action – any action – to shake things up. They are, to their supporters, the comeuppance smug elites deserve.

On top of this, and feeding this, Islam is in epochal crisis. Its Sunni and Shiite branches are mired in violent confrontation. Its adjustment to the modern world has proved faltering and agonized enough to produce a metastasizing strain of violent anti-Western jihadist beliefs to which Mateen – like the San Bernardino shooters – was apparently susceptible.

That he shot revelers in a gay club suggests once again that Islam and sexuality constitute a particularly combustible realm. Liberal Western sexual mores are the most troubling affront to a certain strain of Islam. The resultant confrontation incubates explosive violence.

It is 12 years since Theo van Gogh was murdered in Amsterdam by a Dutch-Moroccan Muslim jihadi for making a movie about the treatment of women in Islam; and now homosexuals at the Pulse club in Orlando are targeted by an American citizen of Afghan descent who, it seems, had also found in Islamic extremism the ideological answer to his troubles.

It is poisonous to blame all the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims for this crisis of their religion. Trump’s self-congratulatory reiteration of his call for a temporary ban on non-American Muslims entering the United States exemplifies his violence-tinged politics of division. Michael Oren, the former Israeli ambassador to the United States, was quoted on Twitter hours after the massacre as saying: “If I were Trump, I’d emphasize the Muslim name, Omar Saddiqui Mateen. This changes race.” Later, he said Trump would do this, not that he had recommended it.

It is, however, also dangerous to ignore or belittle the potency of ISIS ideology, the core role it has played in recent violence from Paris to California, and the link between that ideology and the broader crisis of Islam. The favored phrase of the Obama administration in addressing this scourge – “violent extremism” – is vague to the point of evasive meaninglessness. Yes, jihadi terrorists are “violent extremists” but calling them that is like calling Nazism a reaction to German humiliation in World War I: true but wholly inadequate.

Mateen demonstrated again just how potent the mix of ISIS and National Rifle Association ideology is. America is the perfect setting for “lone wolf” ISIS followers because they have access to the weapons they need to do their worst. Despite having been investigated twice in recent years by the F.B.I. for possible ties to terrorism, Mateen was able to walk into a Florida gun dealership recently, and acquire a “long gun” and a pistol. This, by any reasonable standard, is madness.

The AR-15 assault rifle used by Mateen was also the weapon used by the San Bernardino shooters. The former N.R.A. president, David Keene, once described the weapons as the “gun liberals love to hate.” It is in fact the rifle that illustrates why lax American gun laws make American lives cheap. The laws are an aberration.

President Barack Obama described the shooting as “an act of terror and an act of hate.” He made clear his disapproval of gun laws. He called for solidarity. He said nothing about ISIS, or the way the Islamic State’s hold on territory in Syria and Iraq reinforces the charismatic potency of its ideological appeal, disseminated from that base through the internet.

He also said this: “To actively do nothing is a decision as well.”

Yes, to have actively done nothing in Syria over more than five years of war – so allowing part of the country to become an ISIS stronghold, contributing to a massive refugee crisis in Europe, acquiescing to slaughter and displacement on a devastating scale, undermining America’s word in the world, and granting open season for President Vladimir Putin to strut his stuff – amounts to the greatest foreign policy failure of the Obama administration.

It has made the world far more dangerous. I hope for the best but fear the victory of the politics of anger in America and Europe.

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4 responses to “Orlando and Trump’s America

  1. David Schatzky

    The link between Mateen’s internal conflicts and his savage, tragic acting out is only now being discovered and documented. He was a frequent visitor to the LGBTQ club, he was seen on gay dating websites like Grinder. His father said “It is up to God to punish homosexuals”. Imagine what it must be like to be aware of having homosexual desires while growing up in a fundamentalist household and being exposed to the overtly seductive and permissive environment of social media and Orlando nightlife. Who do you hate? Yourself or those around you who behave in ways your family and your religion have told you are abhorrent, evil and forbidden? Ultimately, someone so troubled hates both himself and those others (to which he is also attracted). Without deep therapy, he was a prime candidate for profoundly destructive actions. Sadly, horribly, he exploded. What the full consequences will be is a slowly unfolding tense story. And very, very complex: beyond Isis, beyond Trump, and regrettably, beyond reason.

  2. Everything David writes is of course true. May I comment on a different aspect of Roger Cohen’s upsetting column: the causal chaim between the act of terror and a possible global catastrophe. Every disastrous diplomatic move between Gavrilo Princip’s shooting of the Austrian archduke and his wife on June 28, 1914, and the outbreak of WW1 on August 1st MIGHT have gone another way. What now seems inevitable was not inevitable at all. By analogy, no consequence of Orlando is inevitable.

  3. Coincidentally I just this morning read this paragraph from Adam Hochschild’s To End All Wars – “If the Archduke and his wife had not been assassinated, might the war have been avoided? Possibly, but given Austria-Hungary’s impatience to crush Serbia and Germany’s ambitions to dominate Europe, it is hard to imagine a conflict of some sort not taking place. … Three other factors… First was the pair of rival alliances that obligated some countries to come to the aid of others in case of war. Second was the pressure felt by all the major Continental powers to mobilize… Third was the tremendous advantage gained by any country that attacked first, for this guaranteed that the fighting would at least begin on another country’s territory.”

    It’s interesting to imagine the parallels (and non-parallels) in the context of today’s world of plots and subplots.

  4. the rubbish in the article is the closing assumption that it was possible for the US to intervene at any point in the past five or more years that would have avoided either iSIS or the perpetuation of the Assad government. There has never been a clear choice among the mob of fanatic opponents and the savage government, not to mention the need to deal with their foreign allies. Doing anything is not a desirable alternative to doing nothing. just because things are horrible today does not mean there was a point when an outside power like the US could have avoided it.