Newspaper article International New York Times

Trying to Pinpoint Why a Killer Strikes ; Gays, Guns and Jihad: Motives for Massacre Blur on Closer Scrutiny

Newspaper article International New York Times

Trying to Pinpoint Why a Killer Strikes ; Gays, Guns and Jihad: Motives for Massacre Blur on Closer Scrutiny

Article excerpt

By shoehorning attacks like the Orlando rampage into familiar narratives, we think we can make sense of them. But the debate is always unsettled.

Long before Omar Mateen's victims had all been identified, the presumptive nominees for president of the United States were clashing on a seemingly narrow question: Was the massacre an act of "radical Islam"?

Donald J. Trump and other Republicans have long used the phrase, partly as a way of suggesting that President Obama privileges political correctness over keeping Americans safe. Democrats have avoided it for fear of exacerbating Islamophobia and legitimizing terrorists' claims to represent a religion. On Monday morning, Hillary Clinton broke with Mr. Obama, using the term herself to describe Mr. Mateen, the Florida security guard who perpetrated the mass shooting.

This debate over terminology might seem like a distraction, but it also speaks to the hardest and most contentious question of all: When a troubled young man murders dozens of people, invoking a group with which he appears to have few real links, how do we classify, and thereby make sense of, what he did?

Orlando, like previous attacks, has prompted an obsessive search for clues that might allow us to place this violence within a familiar context.

Mr. Trump, by citing "radical Islam," urges a narrative of clashing civilizations and war on terror. Mr. Obama, meanwhile, has focused his outrage on what he sees as the laxity of America's gun laws. And gay rights groups have placed the attack within a long history of homophobic violence.

The question of Mr. Mateen's motivation has ramifications that go well beyond Orlando. Those who seek stricter gun control have an incentive to emphasize his history of domestic violence, threatening statements, emotional problems and contact with the F.B.I. Those who desire a stronger American response to Islamist terrorism are motivated to see evidence for his ties to the Islamic State, the extremists he cited in a call to emergency dispatchers as the attack was underway.

And for gay rights advocates who yearn for recognition of the scope of their persecution, Mr. Mateen's targeting of a gay club during Gay Pride Month is paramount.

But as more details of Mr. Mateen's life emerge -- including reports that he visited the nightclub, Pulse, and used a gay dating app -- they have blurred rather than clarified these competing narratives. The question of why this attack happened and the underlying question of what to do about it have only become harder to answer.

The discussion of these scattershot and contradictory clues to Mr. Mateen's motivations has become a proxy for an argument over whose narrative is truest and most urgent.

As social media networks and cable news shows in the United States inevitably split along partisan lines, already widened by the presidential campaign, these narratives are increasingly framed as exclusive rather than complementary.

Efforts to divine a motivation speak to something deeper than politics: a desire to make sense of seemingly senseless violence. Offering an explanation -- whether it is radical Islam or mental illness or homophobia or gun access -- is also a way of trying to comfort ourselves by asserting false clarity over something that is ultimately unknowable: the chain of personal experiences and decisions that led this man to murder 49 people in Orlando.

"There is a strong impulse, particularly in America, to 'do something' after a tragedy like this," said Will McCants, a terrorism expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "If we know why the tragedy happened, we'll know what to do."

In truth, Mr. McCants said, terrorist attacks have "a confluence of causes, and because we're dealing with the human mind and the interplay of complex social and political factors, it's difficult to separate the crucial from the incidental. …

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