Nobody but Omar Mateen could’ve predicted his assault-rifle massacre of 49 people at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub early Sunday morning (June 12). Nobody could’ve known that his slaughter of 49 and wounding of 53 mostly Latinx queer people would amount to the deadliest mass shooting in American history.
But let’s not kid ourselves: Commercial media and soundbite-chasing politicians already had their responses written in stone, well before this particular act of violence took place.
Post-9/11, media responses to mass shootings by Brown people always take on the same form. As news outlets scramble for developments about the death toll, the status of the police investigation and the killer’s national origin, they also hunt for evidence of the killer’s allegiance to Islamic fundamentalist terrorist groups.
Even if their only connection to an ISIS or an Al Qaeda is an unhinged Facebook post or a comment to a neighbor, the shooter is depicted as a demon crazed by an innate, latent desire to punish innocent Americans and destroy our American way of life.
Talking heads debate the essence of Islam—whether it’s a violent or peaceful religion—despite the staggering diversity of its 1.7 billion followers on six continents. Muslim groups, rightfully fearful of retribution, quickly condemn the violence and say that it doesn’t represent the whole religion.
Then politicians get in on the act, “praying” for the victims, sometimes despite their previous legislative hostility toward them. Some choose racist and Islamophobic dog whistles. Others use blatant xenophobia in their pledges to use the full extent of state force against “radical Islamist terrorism“—the same state force that relies on racism and xenophobia to conduct that fight.
All of that noise affects the public as it tries to make sense of the tragedy. The very voices most affected by this carnage—in the case of Pulse, the queer Latinx people, Muslim Americans and queer Muslims whose lived experiences don’t align with us-versus-them rhetoric—get lost in the static. Lather, rinse and repeat.
Amid all of this, it’s easy for some of us to forget that how our media and political representatives respond to these mass shootings also predicts and reinforces America’s collective amnesia about this country’s violence against its marginalized peoples.
We don’t acknowledge that Pulse is just the latest of more than 1,000 mass shootings (many perpetrated with legally purchased, military grade guns other countries don’t allow) since the Sandy Hook massacre in 2012. We skim over how White supremacist terrorism kills more Americans than Islamic fundamentalism. We conveniently forget that our country has perpetuated genocide against its indigenous peoples, enslaved and terrorized African-Americans and has even gone as far as dropping bombs on children. The United States continues to handle the legacy of this violence poorly.
More importantly, we skip over how Mateen took inspiration from a police department whose members commit routine abuse against people of color with few to no sanctions. Or the fact that Mateen, like too many American men of all backgrounds, abused his ex wife. Or even how ISIS, the terror network Mateen pledged allegiance to, wouldn’t command so many followers without Western meddling in Middle Eastern affairs creating the vacuums in which militarized hate prevails.That’s not to mention how Mateen’s bullets mainly killed Latinx LGBTQ people finding liberation in a designated safe space. How the folks celebrating Pride at Pulse already suffer disproportionate violence and alienation even when a mass shooting doesn’t compel our attention.
Parts of American society can distance themselves from the roots of this massacre. Or they can declares this “everybody’s tragedy” in a subtle effort to erase the queer Latinx profiling at the heart of this horror. But the truth is that Mateen is an American son, born in America, raised in America and influenced by the violence of America.
We can fight the hate and violence that inspires mass shootings. But neither we nor the commercial media and politicians that inform so many Americans can afford to misunderstand how much this crime embodies the hate and violence that built and sustains our country. If we take the wrong conclusions from Pulse, we’ll be back here again in a few months, restarting this sick cycle of wondering, despite everything we’ve already seen, “how could this happen?”