The Horror of Orlando

by Graham E. Fuller 

The mind cannot quite take it in—the wantonness of the Orlando events that now rank as the worst murder spree in US history. The longer range repercussions cannot yet be calculated, but if the past is any judge, nearly all of them are likely to bad. How can we possibly bring any kind of rational “explanations” to bear on if? That it was an evil act is utterly clear. But when confronted with such horrific events we want better answers.

In this case, as in so many others, there is no single cause to explain it all—although some will hasten to offer you one-size-fits-all explanations. Indeed, nothing could be more dangerous than to latch onto any single-cause theory to clarify everything. Like most things in life, all-of-the-above factors are at work. Not one or two, but all. Here they some key ones, in no particular order of priority.

-The killer was deeply disturbed, deranged, flawed. This goes almost without saying for anyone capable of such an inhuman act. A gasoline-drenched mind awaiting a spark.

-The killer was Muslim. In the last minutes of his life he claimed for the record that he owed allegiance to ISIS (“Islamic State”). It’s not yet clear if he had been recruited by them—probably not—but he was at least self-recruited—a lone wolf seeking wider connections.

-We cannot avoid mentioning Islam in the context of this massacre—not because Islam is an inspiration for murder, but because some Muslims in the last decades have self-identified with Islam as now representing the out-group, the oppressed. Even some disturbed non-Muslims have converted on that basis. Think how many American Black Muslims converted to Islam as a statement against racism in white American culture.  Radical Islam has become today the ideology of preference for some individuals seeking out a “higher cause” by which to justify their frustrations, resentments, fantasies and even savagery.

-There will always be deranged individuals filled with hate, compensating for failure and impotence. They will always seek those higher justifications that can seemingly lend dignity to  their own wretched state of mind and acts of rage. If it is not Islam today, it will be something else tomorrow. Anarchist and communist (Marxist-Leninist) killers proclaimed ideology to justify their acts of violence. Weird Buddhist sects in Japanese subways. Or “sacred nationalism” invoked. When religion is added, it only intensifies the psychological brew as it raises the “moral banner” higher.

-Guns kill. The availability of military assault weapons to almost any unstable individual who seeks one unquestionably was key to the record number of deaths in Orlando. A handgun or a knife also kills—but not fifty people in as many seconds. Sadly, similar massacres in the past have left the gun lobby unfazed; it is unlikely it will be any different this time.

-Homophobia is widespread in the US. Christian scripture as well as Islamic law inveigh against it. In traditional Jewish law, male homosexuality called for death. Seventy-seven countries currently ban homosexuality. But while broad elements of US society today have attained a fairly high tolerance for sexual freedom, there still exists a macho popular culture in many parts of the country which regularly puts gays at risk of homophobic attack.

-The Muslim world right now is undergoing intensely traumatic conditions of war, death, civil strife, sectarian witch-hunts, breakdown of social norms, and the destruction of law, order and infrastructure. There have long been many outstanding local problems, but rarely has the extent of regional devastation been of this magnitude. We must acknowledge the huge degree of US responsibility in creating and prolonging many of these conditions abroad. The anguish of the region is now spreading out across much of the globe and leaching back into our own American society. The US cannot kill at leisure abroad and remain untouched at home.

-This exceptionally ugly current environment in the Middle East is churning the religious, ethnic and ideological pot, producing a broad range of extreme or deviant interpretations of Islam relating to identity, community self-preservation and resistance. People especially turn to religious faith in times of desperation. Now, clearly, the Orlando killer experienced none of these conditions first hand. But events in the Middle East, on television non-stop, constitute part of the ambient atmosphere in and around where all Muslims live.

There may be other specific explanatory factors at work here as well. But all of these factors must be acknowledged—we can’t pick and choose our favorite hobby horse. It’s not “all guns,” or “all Muslims” or “all homophobia,” or “all  US Middle East policy,” or “all Israeli occupation.” If each person’s pet issue is cherry-picked to “prove” their position without reference to the others, we are just playing at high-school, or Fox, debating.

There are no, repeat no, policy steps—Donald Trump notwithstanding—that can immediately alleviate these conditions in the short term. The domestic and foreign scene have created a deep and volatile mix not readily amenable to any quick fixes.

But some medium term steps that need to be taken? They are pretty much the obverse of the conditions  we cited above.

-The US and the West must cease use of military force in the Middle East as the primary tool of foreign policy. US “boots on the ground” everywhere are as much or more of the problem as existing local problems on their own. The presence of western armies abroad feed the “clash of civilization” myth and distract regional people from dealing with issues themselves.

-We can ban the sale of assault rifles—to anyone. Gun deaths in the US staggeringly outweigh those in other industrialized countries.

-If US domestic politics cannot permit an even-handed American role in the Arab-Israeli problem —obviously the case—then let other nations do it. It is not America’s role to make Israel safe for expansionist Zionism.

-Work more closely with US Muslim communities in helping spot wayward and troubled youth who might otherwise eventually find their way to zealots advocating murder. This does not mean more FBI stings against sad, vulnerable souls fast-talked into some wacko plot. Muslim communities are the first to pay the highest price for murderous events of this sort. Muslim American communities are deeply motivated to stop them, especially when they are included as security partners. This is already taking place in many communities.

Given the magnitude of the problem today, there is a temptation for the US government itself to monitor and control the rhetoric of preaching in US mosques. But it won’t really work. The issue has already long since been politicized. Is organizing political action against Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands to be treated as “hate speech” and incitation to violence? It certainly will if AIPAC has anything to say about it. Are anti-Russian Chechens to be perceived as nothing more than freedom fighters? American Muslim communities themselves will have to take up the sensitive and complex role of monitoring aberrant speech and behavior in their own mosques and speak out against radical interpretations of Islam in their communities. And foreign preachers may well come under particular scrutiny, posing complex judgment calls.

These are not easy times.

Graham E. Fuller is a former senior CIA official, author of numerous books on the Muslim World; his latest book is “Breaking Faith: a novel of espionage and an American’s crisis of conscience in Pakistan.” (Amazon, Kindle). Republished, with permission, from

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  1. Very decent post–rational, balanced, articulate.

    ‘It’s not “all guns,” or “all Muslims” or “all homophobia,” or “all US Middle East policy,” or “all Israeli occupation.’ True: but ending the Zionist Israeli occupation of Palestine would suck a helluva lotta air out of “radical” Muslim discourse and action, worldwide. It would also lead to sane debate and likely forward momentum on two, perhaps three, of the other four “It’s not…” listing of flashpoints demanding urgent attention in the US (esp.) and around the world.

  2. A an important article that helps frame a lot of issues.My one objection is your implication that there is chaos in the Middle East “because of the US”. That’s myopic. As you surely know, the US got involved in situations like Israel/Palestine or Egypt or Iraq because of the use of terrorism and mass killing *first*. You may have a different narrative, and of course you can go back and look at things like the US propping up the Shah of Iran. But your one blind spot, as with so many analyzing the Middle East, is the intensive role the Soviet Union had in this region, propping up regimes and sponsoring terrorist groups such as the PLA. And it was the Soviet Union that invaded Afghanistan — the homeland of the Orlando terrorist’s father — and killed a million people.

    You say we need to be “even-handed” in Israel although under Obama, if anything, we’ve been one-sided in pressuring Israel to change without equally invoking the need for Palestinian terror and violence to stop. This one-sidedness has not worked in the way you wish. You say, “It is not America’s role to make Israel safe for expansionist Zionism,” clearly using the term “Zionism” in a pejorative manner. Sorry, but it *is* America’s role — and US policy — to protect Israel, our ally. We should not capitulate to terrorism and Arab expansionism. Why does Israel continue to build settlements that are so objectionable if not to keep hedging against continued terror. Where is the movement that will pressure the terrorist organizations and leadership of Palestine to stop?

  3. While your emphasis on complexity is well-founded when considering the Orlando slaughter, the one factor that likely makes the largest difference is the easy accessibility to guns.

    A recent study based on data from OECD countries in 2010 strongly supports this.

    “Even though it has half the population of the other 22 nations combined, the United States accounted for 82 percent of all gun deaths. The United States also accounted for 90 percent of all women killed by guns, the study found. Ninety-one percent of children under 14 who died by gun violence were in the United States. And 92 percent of young people between ages 15 and 24 killed by guns were in the United States.”

    The summary about suicides by gun are particularly revealing: “Differences in overall suicide rates across cities, states and regions in the United States are best explained not by differences in mental health, suicide ideation, or even suicide attempts, but by availability of firearms.”

    If a Democrat wins the presidency and Democrats take back the Senate, there is a decent chance that a refigured Supreme Court could overturn the constitutionally-bizarre Heller decision and “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State” can be returned to its place at the beginning of the Second Amendment.

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