In the hours after the deadliest mass shooting in American history, which killed fifty people and wounded fifty-three others at a gay night club in Orlando, Americans began the ritual of separating our strands of shame after a mass killing. In this case, we are apportioning an armed man’s actions to the influence of ISIS, homophobia, mental instability, and the availability of high-powered weapons.
It is our ugly accounting—and it is absolutely necessary. Better that than pretending, as we did just a few years ago, that a mass killing was not “the time” for politics, that our horror should impose a holiday on analysis, that we must, in a perversion of civility, pretend that nothing in our laws or culture might have saved those lives. Politics, even when they are flawed and toxic, show us to ourselves—rarely more so than on Sunday, when the presumptive Republican nominee for President, Donald Trump, paused for a moment of self-celebration: “Appreciate the congrats for being right on radical Islamic terrorism,” he tweeted. “I don’t want congrats, I want toughness & vigilance. We must be smart!”
By that hour, anybody watching television knew that Trump was wrong; the Orlando massacre could not simply be ascribed to the influence of radical jihadists, even if the shooter did, as reported, place a 911 call just before the attack to pledge allegiance to ISIS. On the contrary, as President Obama said that afternoon, “We know enough to say that this was an act of terror and an act of hate.” It was the fifteenth time that Obama has spoken after a mass shooting. Over the years, he spoke, in tears, after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, in Connecticut, in 2012 (twenty-seven dead); in fury, after a rampage at Umpqua Community College, in Oregon, in 2015 (nine dead).In Oregon, he pointed to gun policies that reduced shootings in the United Kingdom and Australia, and asked, “How can you, with a straight face, make the argument that more guns will make us safer?”
On Sunday, Obama was subdued, as if numbed by the sameness of the exercise, but he took pains to identify the specific insult of attacking, during Gay Pride month, a night club that serves the L.G.B.T community. “It’s a place of solidarity and empowerment where people have come together to raise awareness, to speak their minds, and to advocate for their civil rights,” he said. “This is a reminder that attacks on any American—regardless of race, religion, or sexual orientation—is an attack on all of us and on the fundamental values of equality and dignity that help us as a country.” (Hours after the Orlando attack, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti announced that a “heavily armed” man in Santa Monica had been arrested, apparently on his way to attack the L.A. Pride Parade, though authorities said that the incident appeared unrelated to the killings in Orlando.)
In his remarks on Sunday, Obama called, as he has many times before, for changing gun laws to make it harder to kill large numbers of people. He noted “To actively do nothing is a decision as well.” After the Sandy Hook attack, many gun-control advocates believed that the slaughter of children would make it impossible for allies of the National Rifle Association to resist an effort to tighten access to guns. But senators rejected a bipartisan bill that sought to prevent people with histories of mental instability or criminal backgrounds from buying guns, without a background check, at gun shows. Some gun-control advocates are more optimistic than they were three years ago, believing that Americans’ building revulsion at mass shootings has emboldened members of Congress to resist the pressure of the N.R.A. That theory may be tested in the days and weeks to come.
Any new gun-control effort will rest partly on what authorities learn about the attacker. Omar Mateen, a twenty-nine-year-old security guard, in the last week legally purchased a handgun and an assault rifle, according to an A.T.F. official. Mateen’s ex-wife, who spoke to the Washington Post on the condition that her name not be released, said that “he was not a stable person,” and was abusive. “He would just come home and start beating me up because the laundry wasn’t finished or something like that,” she told the paper.
According to early reports, Mateen rented a car and drove to Orlando on Saturday night. It was Latin Night at Pulse, and there were more than three hundred people dancing and celebrating at the club. At first, some in the crowd mistook the gun shots for part of the music, or for firecrackers. Christopher Hansen, a survivor, told NBC that the shots “went with the beat almost until you heard just too many shots.” Some patrons escaped out of the back of the building. Others hid wherever they could. A woman named Mina Justice told the Associated Press that her son, Eddie, texted her from the bathroom, where at least fifteen people were hiding. “He has us, and he’s in here with us,” her son wrote. (Justice’s son remains missing as of this writing, and the Orlando Police have yet to release a full list of the victims.)
By 6 A.M. on Sunday morning, Mateen was dead, following a shootout with police, and investigators were trying to understand how he prepared the ambush and why. Mateen was “on the radar” of U.S. officials as early as 2013, perhaps for statements he posted online, but the F.B.I. closed the case, authorities told several news outlets. Imam Shafiq Rahman, of the Islamic Center of Fort Pierce, told the Post that Mateen regularly prayed with his father and son, but that he did not know Mateen well, and that “there was no indication at all” that he would commit an act of violence. Mateen’s father, who emigrated from Afghanistan, said that the shooting “has nothing to do with religion,” and recounted that his son had previously been angered by the sight of two men kissing. Despite Mateen’s 911 call referencing ISIS, there is no evidence that he had contact with the group.
In the decade and a half since 9/11, we have come to understand acts of terror as precursors to changes in American life—changes in how we perceive our neighbors, our security, our government, and our politics. On Sunday, Trump and Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee, both quickly issued statements, and it was clear that the Orlando massacre would play a large part in the Presidential campaign, though it wasn’t yet clear what kind. In his remarks on Sunday, Obama said, “We will not give in to fear or turn against each other.” It was a fair statement of hope—if not yet a statement of fact.