The spontaneous, day-long “sit-in” initiated by Congressman John Lewis and others in the House of Representatives echoed Fannie Lou Hamer: “I’m sick ‘n tired of bein’ sick ‘n tired.” At one point Wednesday evening, a Republican House member stood off and shook his fist at an insurgent Democratic speaker focused on reasonable gun legislation. The man simply hollered, “Radical Islam! Radical Islam!” The next morning, Chris Cuomo on CNN debated Republican House member Sean Duffy from Wisconsin on the stand-off. Duffy’s response was this: “The threat is not guns; it’s radical Islamic terrorism!” It has to be one or the other; it can’t be a little of both with a host of other things mixed in.
Fox News studio warriors Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly — and let’s not forget the king of hate sleaze, Donald Trump — work this absolutist line hard. It feels like a matter of life and death for them that they jam someone like Omar Mateen into a box labeled RADICAL ISLAM. The term itself has become magical. If one shuts out everything else but these magical words, we’re led to believe the solution will appear as clear as Jesus rising on the third day. We need to re-invade, re-occupy and re-bomb-the-crap-out-of Sunni Anbar Province in western Iraq and reaching into Syria.
I was in Falluja as a peace activist in December 2003. A blond-haired westerner slunk down in the backseat of a blue Opal with a cracked windshield, I soaked up what I could of normal, on-going life in Falluja. My Iraqi guides were looking for the forward operations base where the son of the man in the front seat drove a fuel truck. While all this arguing goes on, I can’t help seeing that tragic Anbar Province city’s fate hanging in the balance.
Most people don’t know it, but before Falluja became a famous US invasion battle-zone, it was a resort town around the large Lake Habbaniyah. The city was famous for the tastiest kabobs in Iraq. Whenever I hear the militarist right intone their magic words RADICAL ISLAM all I can think of is the famous line from Vietnam, “We had to destroy the village in order to save it.” Some 65 percent of the homes in Falluja were destroyed; we lost 95 Americans; many thousands of Iraqis were killed and maimed. The iconic quote from The Battle of Falluja came from a Lt. Col. Gary Brandl: “The enemy has got a face. He’s called Satan. He’s in Falluja. And we’re going to destroy him.” Today, Falluja is a basket-case of pain and desperation.
The New York Times reports that Iraqi forces have taken control of Falluja from ISIS. That sounds good. The problem is, when our comfy right-wing warriors speak of renewing the US military assault on ISIS in places like Falluja, they’re not talking about the real Falluja and real Fallujans caught in a vice between the US and ISIS; what they’re talking about is a Falluja-of-the-mind that’s on TV.
It’s clear to me the current calls for re-mobilizing the US war in Iraq have little to do with Iraq and ISIS. They have more to do with vanity and self-image. Making America “great” again for Mr. Trump means making America feared again. The feeling of being feared is a narcotic for these guys. Historically, it’s too often been the case that we attack a much weaker element in order to feel the potency of our power. The point is the feeling of our own power, not the solving of an international problem involving us.
The classic example of this was in 1983/84 when the right’s beloved Ronald Reagan tucked the tail of the United States between his legs and fled from Beirut four months after 241 Marines were ignominiously blown to hell in a poorly guarded building.
I will never forget standing in a line at a Burger King in inner city Philadelphia on the morning of October 26, 1983, and noticing a Philadelphia Inquirer on the counter. The front-page headline was about the invasion of Grenada the day before. This was, as some may recall, two days after the bloody bombing in Beirut. I made some disgruntled crack about the crummy invasion, and a man ahead of me in line turned and, in a determined voice, said: “We had to show ‘em!” He was referring to the national humiliation of the Beirut bombing two days earlier. As the media savvy Ronald Reagan certainly understood, while Beirut and Grenada may be thousands of miles apart and totally unrelated politically or militarily, they were both on TV. For me, it was an unforgettable lesson in cynical PR ju-jitsu and war mobilization in a post-Vietnam world. Instead of a lingering humiliation, the Beirut bombing was quickly flipped into an unspoken, emotional justification for the controversial US invasion of a harmless, tiny island undergoing a political crisis the White House did not like. And while Beirut served this function for the invasion of Grenada, that very invasion served to assuage the humiliation from the Beirut bombing. It was an insidiously brilliant circle.
Philosophers from time immemorial tell us life is really an incredibly unfathomable, swirling chaos of occurrences, and the human perceptual challenge is to select out the occurrences that work for one’s purposes. From this selected gathering of facts, some true, some false, we develop arguments and narratives to sell our case to ourselves and others. Some are more concerned about honesty and fairness in this process than others. Politicians and journalists make careers out of this process. Joseph Goebbels was brilliant at it. The Reagan gang certainly mastered it in the case of Beirut/Grenada. Currently, the militarist political right is working Omar Mateen and his Orlando murders in this fashion. By flogging the term radical Islam over-and-over-and-over ad-nauseum, they’re trying to shut out everything else to imprint the magical term in our brains. They’re trying to make complexity and balance impossible.
“Trying To Know The Unknowable”
After Orlando, the New York Times has been doing what the New York Times does best: It has been making the Omar Mateen/Orlando story more complicated. It has begun a series of stories under the title “The Interpreter.” The purpose is to “explore the ideas and context behind world events.” On June 15, an Interpreter article by Max Fisher was headlined: “Trying to Know The Unknowable: Why Attackers Strike.”
Complexity is the nemesis of people on both sides of the ideological mud-wrestling match that is American politics at the moment. Leftists trash the New York Times as a corporate organ of the elite, while those the right trash it as an organ of liberalism. In the spirit of complexity, both views have some validity. The Times is flawed; for instance, no one should forget the Judith Miller reporting that shilled for a dishonest Iraq War. But efforts like “The Interpreter” series encourage slowing down, suspending judgment while gathering more information and weighing the complexities, even, as the headline cited above suggests, sometimes allowing for the ultimate unknowability of what goes down in the world. There may be no absolute, closing-out solution to a problem, in which case understanding the complexities of the matter becomes the most critical factor in coping with the problem. Too often in the face of crisis, we convince ourselves we have to quickly do something — anything! Remaining calm and working to understand what happened may be best for the long run.
“We want to live in a world where these questions have identifiable answers, and politicians are happy to tell us that they do, so they can present themselves as the solution,” Max Fisher writes. “But because no single narrative is ever sufficient, the debate is always unsettled — and always raging.”
Fisher distills the Omar Mateen narrative down to four “explanations.” They are: 1) radical Islam, 2) mental illness, 3) homophobia and 4) gun access:
1) Omar Mateen was not very religious, though he did apparently make at least one trip to Mecca. He said he was loyal to both al Qaeda and Hezballah, Sunni and Shia organizations at odds with each other, which suggests he wasn’t very clear on the politics of Middle Eastern religion. It suggests he mentioned these affiliations to a 911 operator because he had heard them on TV and knew they would have shock value. What he appears to have liked about “radical Islam” was its official oppression of females, something he personally felt strongly about, given that he regularly beat his wife and kept her virtually locked up in what he considered his apartment.
2) My wife argues hard for the mental illness aspect, and she makes a powerful case. As a society, we tend to wait until someone harms him- or herself or others before we feel compelled to intervene. In the eighties, we emptied out the state hospitals, often known as “snake pits”. We now rely on the criminal justice system to address mental-illness problems. We avoid like the plague any solution that violates an American’s civil liberties or smacks of “socialism”. We wait until its too late and then rely on police and weaponry.
3) Homophobia — the fear of homosexuality or homoeroticism — either directed at others or at one’s own inner drives, seems to have been a significant factor in Omar Mateen playing out his rage in a popular Orlando gay bar. Along with misogyny, elements of radical Islam certainly share this brand of fear and its concomitant hatred with Mateen. But fundamentalist, or radical, Christianity is quite homophobic as well. Following the Orlando massacre, two Baptist preachers publically announced they regretted more sodomites had not been killed in Orlando; in fact, they hoped more would be killed.
4) Access to assault rifles by someone like Omar Mateen is a long overdue no-brainer and the motivation for the historically unprecedented, spontaneous civil disobedience that just broke out among Democratic members of the US House of Representatives. Droning on about ISIS and radical Islam and calling for more bombing in Iraq does not alter the debacle of political gridlock in the US Congress driven by the NRA on the assault weapons issue.
The Omar Mateen massacre in Orlando is a matrix of all these things.
Omar Mateen, Frustrated Wanna-be-Cop
I’d like to add a fifth “explanation” to the Omar Mateen matrix. Based on what I’ve read, I see him as an insecure, macho wanna-be-cop or -warrior who ended up floundering about because he could not fit into a police or military institution under whose wing his hyper-masculine need to control others could be legitimized. Mateen was a frustrated male in need of a uniform and the accompanying regalia of masculine power provided by our police and military institutions in what is currently a highly militarized culture.
Mateen obtained an associates degree in Criminal Justice Technology. This suggests he knew what his interests were, and they led him to the world of law enforcement — not into literature, social science or business management. His behavior suggests he liked to boss people around. He reportedly physically abused both his wives. With his degree, he got a job as a prison guard. He soon found a better job with G4S, a corporate security company operating in 100 countries with 610,000 employees. He worked for G4S since 2007; his last post was guarding a gated retirement community in Florida.
The most famous wanna-be-cop in recent history, of course, is George Zimmerman, the killer of Trayvon Martin, a homicide that occurred about 20 miles from the Orlando massacre. Zimmerman was self-patrolling an apartment complex when he ran into young Martin returning from a trip to the minute market. The man’s need to cozy up to cops and to act as if he was a cop always fascinated me. What was this impulse to assume a personal, semi-official hunt for “badguys”? These badguys, of course, were often assumed to be poor and African American. How does this relate on an individual, personal level to the larger political idea expressed above: the vanity-based need for others to fear us as a nation? In other words, does a guy like Zimmerman find it important, maybe even erotically-charging, to instill fear in others by upping the ante and acting like a cop. Mateen certainly went way beyond this; but still, was he like Zimmerman in the sense both were men who felt the allure of cop-work but didn’t quite have what it takes to be allowed to wear an official uniform in an officially designated department or unit? The lone wolf identification would seem to imply the failure to fit into a pack.
The Son of Sam killer in New York said he killed his six victims on the orders of a dog named Harvey. Does ISIS serve a similar purpose for our wanna-be-cop-without-a-home, Omar Mateen? If you accept the inner world of someone like Omar Mateen seriously as having its own logic, then where the voices come from that legitimize his actions — be they a dog or some remote voice on the internet — matters less than what’s going on in the man’s head. At least that’s what the judge felt about David Berkowitz; he didn’t buy the talking dog story.
I’m not arguing an equivalency, here. ISIS and its leaders are savvy and, I believe, evil people who should be dealt with effectively — by regional forces with an investment in bringing sanity and reasonable government to Anbar Province. ISIS leaders clearly find the Omar Mateens of our world useful, as the alienated Omar Mateens find ISIS useful as something to rub our western noses in.
Garlic and Complexity
In a second “The Interpreter” article by Times writer Amanda Taub headlined “Mass Attacks, Domestic Abuse And a Pattern of Total Control,” Taub quotes Nimmi Gowrinathan, a professor at City College of New York who studies women’s roles in insurgent and terrorist conflicts. In cases like Omar Mateen, she sees a push/pull dynamic at work. Male-centric restrictive norms in ISIS propaganda are a “pull” factor, while those being so pulled are “pushed” by their own needs and desires. It’s a symbiotic relationship. Her conclusion is that the demonic aspects of Omar Mateen’s motivation are more inner and homegrown than foreign-influenced. “He is the outcome of the United States’ political culture, not the Islamic State’s.”
Hollering the would-be-magic words “Radical Islam! Radical Islam!” louder and louder doesn’t affect any of this complexity. Though it may not be a pretty picture of institutional civility, the Democratic civil disobedience that exploded within the US Congress in the face of such blockheadedness was encouraging. It’s a dilemma: How do you break a logjam without being rough with the jammed-up logs? We can only hope this unprecedented election year will end with a silver stake through the heart of America’s far-right vampire party. Like garlic to vampires, an understanding and acceptance of complexity will destroy these people.