THE horror of the recent Orlando shooting at a gay nightclub that left almost 50 dead and dozens injured has shaken the United States. It is the biggest act of terrorism on American soil since the 9/11 tragedy. There has been across-the-board sympathy and a show of solidarity with the victims of the mindless and brutal killing.
But the dreadful incident has also heightened the politics of hate and fearmongering that may cause greater damage to American democratic values. The provocative statements made by Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican Party candidate for US president, in the aftermath and some irresponsible media reporting are terrifying. What is more worrisome is that growing Islamophobia could actually boomerang to provide terrorists and extremist Islamist groups with an effective propaganda tool.
Since the perpetrator of the worst incident of mass shooting in the US history was a young American Muslim man of Afghan decent, it inevitably raised questions about the killer’s possible links with global Islamist militant networks waging a war against the United States. His last message to emergency services amid the carnage declaring his allegiance to the militant Islamic State group reinforced the suspicion — although he had been questioned twice by the FBI in the past but cleared after no substantive evidence of his connection with any extremist group was found.
Not surprisingly, the initial investigation has focused mainly on the possible involvement of an organised terror network in the massacre. At the same time, it was said that this was an individual act of terror, although the possibility of the killer being influenced by extremist ideology could not be ruled out, especially after the FBI said that extremist internet content had radicalised him.
Some details that came out during the early part of the investigation, however, indicate that the New York-born Omar Mateen was emotionally unstable and might have been bipolar which would give a different twist to the possible motives behind his horrific action. His ex-wife told the American media that he was abusive and would beat her. They were married for only a few months before her parents rescued her.
What is most appalling is that the tragedy in Orlando is being used to generate hatred.
According to his father who migrated to the United States some 40 years ago, and hosted a television show, Mateen had never been a religious person. Although he often went to the local mosque for prayers there was no evidence of him being driven by any extremist ideology. The father, however, mentioned Mateen as being homophobic.
Several other reports suggested that Mateen was a regular visitor to the club and had been escorted out in a drunken state many times. In fact, he had reportedly exchanged messages on a gay dating app that led to some speculation about his own sexual leanings. He had been frequenting the bar for at least three years, some witnesses said.
But these details hardly drew the attention of the US media that remained obsessed with the possibility of extremist religious motivation leading to the killings by an unstable person. More attention was given to the mosque, which he had visited only occasionally.
The shooting incident led to the likes of Donald Trump stepping up anti-Muslim and anti-Islam rhetoric. The presidential candidate implied that all Afghans were extremists and even glossed over the fact that the killer was an American-born citizen. He reiterated his pledge to place a complete ban on Muslim immigrants if elected president and even hinted at putting restrictions on the freedom of American Muslims.
Trump suggested that President Obama was a sympathiser of Islamist militancy and was intentionally keeping law enforcement from doing its job. He went even further by saying that Obama had tried to bring “large groups” of Muslims from abroad. He claimed that immigrants would constitute a Trojan horse, insinuating that Muslims coming here were part of some secret plan.
He reserved his most scathing criticism for presumptive Democratic Party nominee Hillary Clinton, his probable rival in the coming presidential elections. One of his top advisers implied that Clinton aide Huma Abedin was a “terrorist plant”. This smear campaign has certainly put the Democratic Party candidate in a very defensive position apparently forcing her to declare that the Orlando attack was a product of “radical Islamism”.
It is being described by many analysts as the lowest point in the dirtiest election campaign in American history. What is most appalling is that a tragedy is being used to generate hatred and there is little effort to unite the nation. What is being ignored is the bitter truth that American society is more vulnerable to such kind of gruesome killings because of the free and widespread access to lethal weapons.
There have been 43 mass shootings in the US in the past 10 years and very few of them have had recognisable ideological causes. All efforts by President Obama to change the law have been effectively blocked by the gun lobby that seems to have a stranglehold over the lawmakers.
The question that the US should be asking is, whether it would have been possible for an unstable person like Mateen to massacre so many people if he had no access to an assault rifle. Would it have been possible if it was not Florida, where it is legal for almost anyone who applies for a licence to walk around with concealed, lethal weapons?
The US concern about home-grown extremism and radicalisation is understandable and measures must be taken to protect the life of the American people. But the rise of Islamophobia is equally dangerous and self-defeating. Trumpism threatens America’s own security more than anything else.
In fact, the increasingly warped and lethal rhetoric about Muslims might lead to further rage and the use of firearms by other unstable vigilante groups. It is quite certain that America is not going to become a safer place given the political positioning of the leading candidates in the matter of this heinous crime.
The writer is an author and journalist.
Published in Dawn, June 15th, 2016