On the 12th of June, 49 people were killed in Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, by a gunman. This is one of the worst instances of mass killing in US history. The gunman, not counted among the 49, was shot and killed by the police after a long standoff. Over 50 others were grievously wounded.
This chilling incident does not bear mere straightforward condemnation, because it has since laid bare a number of issues that are not only entrenched in the immediate political and social climate in the United States, but because it calls into question the range retrogressive social attitudes and lawmaking the world over.
The gunman was Omar Mateen. The mere name set the media and the political establishment in the US and the world over ablaze with the expected cries of ‘radical Islamic terrorism’. However, close examination of eye-witness and survivor statements after the attack tells a very complex story about the shooter, the person. He was American, born in New York, to Afghan parents, had trained to work as prison guard at a Florida corrections facility, but worked as a security guard with G4S Secure Solutions, had an active firearms license, and no prior criminal record. He had passed the required psychological screening. However, it is now known that his first wife has pointed to repeated instances of domestic violence in the past. It is also said that he was part of gay dating sites, and frequented Pulse. During the shooting, he is reported to have said that he was doing this because he wanted America to stop bombing his country, and in a 911 call, he claimed allegiance to the ISIS. There are obvious contradictions, however, because his allegiance is also to Hezbollah and the al Nusra, which are in direct combat with the ISIS, and to the arms of the state in the US as a trained prison guard, and later as a security worker in a private firm. It is also very obvious that his own sexual identity, as a married man who was possibly also gay, was deeply conflicted, and a contributing factor.
These pixellated details about the person – a complex, confused, disturbed individual committing what has rightly been called an act of self-hatred due to his own conflicted sexual identity – are relevant. It is important to question why his act is being represented as one of ‘radical Islamic terrorism’ by the media and the conservative political establishment not only in the US but also in India, rather than what it really is – a hate crime against the LGBTQ community, enabled by a culture of violent masculinity and militarism in the US.
This incident was quickly picked up by Republican Presidential nominee Donald Trump to fan the flames of Islamophobia, even as he condemned it, and the Democratic Presidential nominee Hillary Clinton merely called for gun control. While the question of gun control is relevant and important, the real nature of the crime is evident in the issues on which both these positions are silent: namely, the violent hate towards the LGBTQ community. Both these sides of what is the same political coin in the US have a long history of flip-flopping on the issue of gay rights. Both Clinton and Trump have opposed gay marriage in the past, and repeatedly evaded direct questions on the question of the oppression of and hatred towards the LGBTQ community. The fact that they are evading an issue that is at the heart of this instance of hate crime in making this about guns or about ‘radical Islamic terrorism’, is especially clear when one takes stock of the history of mass shootings in the US – in each of them, it was mostly men who were the perpetrators, and only very few are Muslims. Many of these have been instances of hate crimes against particular communities, and directed at racial, sexual, and other minorities.
Closer home, this holds particular lessons – Narendra Modi condemned the act and said in a tweet that his ‘thoughts and prayers’ were ‘with the bereaved families and the injured’. This may be good PR, but again, in the same vein, it is silent on our own laws that criminalise homosexuality. It is also silent on the history of violent hate crimes by Modi’s Hindutva fellow travelers against what they brand as ‘immorality’; the Sri Ram Sene violence against women in a Mangalore pub some years ago should be recalled in this context. The ruling party and its myriad organizations have supported brutal violence against minorities of all kinds, whether marked through religion or sexual preference. This statement is equally silent about the atmosphere of hate against the LGBTQ community in India, fanned repeatedly by prominent proponents of Hindutva. They have long stalled legislation against the criminalization of homosexuality, and its adherents have openly campaigned against non-normative sexuality as being ‘against the order of nature’, as a disorder that must be penalized. It is not surprising that they should make this, like Trump et al, about ‘radical Islamic terrorism’, since it feeds into their own Islamophobic hate-mongering and in turn uses what is essentially a hate crime against the LGBTQ community for its own political ends. This incident serves as a reminder that right wing politics, including our own in the shape of the BJP and the Sangh Parivar, will use instances of masculinist violence and hate crimes to further subjugate religious and other minorities.