Drawing Wrong Lessons from Orlando

America’s mass shootings, especially those linked to Islamic terrorism like the slaughter in Orlando, Florida, prompt a reflex of responses, but some reactions are particularly unhelpful, says ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

Here we go again. Another terrorist incident, and another iteration of the depressingly familiar suite of responses we hear each time in the subsequent surge of rhetoric and commentary. Much of what we hear is what careful consideration of the circumstances and evidence associated with many of these incidents would show to be wrong.

And this is even without including most of the politically driven reactions that have become common amid the partisanship of contemporary America and that one ought to be able to see through without the need of careful consideration.

Omar Mateen, identified as the shooter in the massacre of some 49 people at a dance club in Orlando, Florida, on June 12, 2016.

Omar Mateen, identified as the shooter in the massacre of some 49 people at a dance club in Orlando, Florida, on June 12, 2016.

There are, for example, the fatuous criticisms of leaders for not uttering the term “Islamic terrorism” — criticisms made with no indication that the leaders being criticized don’t fully understand the nature of the terrorism at hand, no hint of any constructive policy implications flowing from this bit of semantics, and no sense of responsibility regarding the damage caused by leaders uttering such phrases.

There is, as with any mass shooting incident, the obligatory fealty to the gun lobby and expression of opposition to gun control. (Is a darkened, crowded night club dance floor — amid loud music, strobe lights, and booze — one of those places where, if everyone were armed, supposedly everyone would be safer?)

And in what could be called a new low for Donald Trump if we had not already had to use the term new low so many times in referring to his utterances, Trump suggested that President Obama was somehow connected to the Orlando shooting, saying that the President has “something else in mind … there’s something going on.”

Rushing Judgment

One of the familiar post-incident patterns is to jump to conclusions and to assume as fact much that really ought to await investigation. To avoid committing that same mistake, one needs to be cautious and agnostic even in criticizing the criticism. But a couple of the common post-incident patterns can confidently be marked as mistaken without awaiting completion of the current investigation.

One is the tendency to see terrorism as the work of a fixed and identifiable set of bad guys, embodied in specific, named groups acting on behalf of a specific ideology and especially in the name of a specific religion. The basic misunderstanding involved in this tendency is to equate whatever group or brand name or ideology that an individual terrorist invokes as a complete and accurate indicator of his motivations. Instead the invocation more often represents a way for the individual, otherwise motivated, to identify with a cause larger than himself.

Whatever else the shooting in Orlando was, it appears — based on the target chosen and an observation by the shooter’s father — to have been a homophobic act. With the shooter having reportedly invoked the name of ISIS in a phone call during the incident, attribution to that group comes naturally.

FBI Director James Comey

FBI Director James Comey

Among the vicious methods the group has used in the territory it controls in the Middle East, it has been especially vicious toward gay people. But based on what has been made publicly known so far, the connection does not go beyond the invocation. FBI director James Comey notes that the shooter also mentioned as supposed inspiration other groups and individuals that have nothing to do with ISIS and are even in competition with it.

Answering homophobia with Islamophobia is a mistake. Hostility to gays is hardly unique to ISIS, and it is not unique to Islam. To the extent there is a religious base for anti-gay (or anti-LGBT) sentiment and actions in the United States, that base has more often involved branches of Christianity. Where such sentiment has taken a violent turn overseas or has required shows of force to prevent it, any religious basis for the homophobia is again diverse. In Africa, which is perhaps the most homophobic continent, the hostility prevails as much in non-Muslim areas (such as majority Christian Uganda) as in Muslim ones.

The Orlando shooter probably had other motivations besides his hostility to gays. Such violent extremists often do. Other motivations can be a mix of inner demons and more outward-oriented matters such as objection to certain public policies. Perhaps more will be learned in the investigation. But nothing should be assumed to be the product of any one group.

Blaming Government

Another familiar pattern that we are hearing once again is the one about how government agencies should have been able to prevent a tragedy if they only had been more diligent, or more imaginative, or something. The basis for the pattern this time is the fact that the shooter had come under suspicion before and had twice been investigated by the FBI.

Billionaire businessman and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.

Billionaire businessman and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.

Recriminations along this line assume, mistakenly, that there always should be some way of finding a terrorist needle in a haystack of potential terrorists. They also mistakenly assume that there already is such a needle to be found, as distinct from terrorist plans that are only in the future and have not yet been made as of the time that someone invites government attention.

We do no favors to ourselves or to our security by falling into these familiar reactive ruts after each terrorist incident. We do a favor to ISIS by giving the group credit each time it claims credit. We especially do it a favor by conforming to its portrayal of global conflict as a Muslim versus non-Muslim thing.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

25 comments for “Drawing Wrong Lessons from Orlando

  1. Abe
    June 16, 2016 at 15:49

    The ability to contain violence in foreign theaters has become an unattainable goal for the Empire. Therefore, everyday citizens are now targets of combat. Whether the latest mass murderer is insane or not, what is clear is that US citizens must decide whether they will allow murder and plunder across the globe to continue in their names. And, perhaps, more importantly, whether they are prepared to accept the consequences. Certainly one does not want to wade into the quagmire of comparing tragedies but to completely ignore the validity of other massacres and the loss of other lives seems to compound the tragedy.

    The news media has framed the latest massacre in Orlando as the largest mass murder in US history. Some members of the media with a measure of intellectual integrity will add that the Orlando Massacre is the largest “post 911.” Regardless, human beings lost their lives and communities are in mourning. However, historical records remind us that the murders in Orlando, unfortunately, do not constitute the largest domestic mass murders. This narrative proposed by corporate media is in search of a public willing to digest a sanitized and less-than thoughtful version of history that conforms with the simplistic but dangerous notion of American exceptionalism. The truth is much less flattering […]

    All massacres are horrific, from Orlando, East St. Louis, My Lai, Vietnam, Wounded Knee to Oklahoma. The latest massacre, however ‘could’ provide an opportunity to understand the nexus between US foreign policy adventures that plunder and violate countries in search of natural resources and US domestic racist actions that trigger staggering incidence of murder and violence on a scale nearly unfathomable outside America.

    America: The Land of Terrorists and Massacres
    By Marsha Coleman-Adebayo

  2. Pat Penick
    June 16, 2016 at 01:03

    Regarding this being the worst massacre in US history, that is of course not so. There were many massacres of Native Americans. Also, in more current times, the ATF and the FBI killed 76 people in Waco on April 19, 1993. Interestingly, the ATF acquired several helicopters from the army for the initial raid–in order to get the army’s helicopters it was necessary to claim that drugs were involved–a bald-faced lie of course. Don’t think anyone lost their jobs over that debacle… Yes, let’s give up some more rights to these nice people!

  3. J'hon Doe II
    June 15, 2016 at 17:04

    Great, enlightening comment and link, Abe. Truth really is Stranger than fiction.
    Your journalism educates, adds dimension to the junk we’re fed by MSM. — Thanks for the link !!!

  4. Abe
    June 15, 2016 at 15:40

    The alleged shooter’s father played an absolute key role in setting up the entire “hate crime” narrative by inserting this quote into the MSM machine during the immediate aftermath of the sensationalized media event. Seddique Mateen said:

    “We were in Downtown Miami, Bayside, people were playing music, and he saw two men kissing each other in front of his wife and kid and he got very angry. They were kissing each other and touching each other and he said, ‘Look at that. In front of my son they are doing that.’ And they we were in the men’s bathroom and men were kissing each other.”

    For the media, and every other political leader in the US, this was now classified as a “hate crime”, and so… case closed. In other words, a simple story line with real traction was now baked firmly into this event – about a homophobic, “ISIS-inspired,” crazed ‘lone gunman’ who ‘went postal’ in a Orlando gay nightclub, and coincidentally, on the eve of an international Gay Pride celebration day.

    Then came the first twist. Just 24 hours later, we learn from a report in the Orlando Sentinel that the alleged shooter Omar Mateen was in fact a frequent visitor for years at the Pulse gay nightclub in Orlando.“It was definitely him. He’d come in for years, and people knew him,” one customer said. Another Pulse customer, Kevin West, even stated on record that he had been talking with Mateen for up to one year on a gay-chat mobile app. So, based on this updated information, this could not have been a “hate crime” because Omar Mateen was most likely gay himself, albeit in the closet.Likewise, this change in the story would also nullify much of the identity politics rhetoric currently being spun around this incident […]

    If it wasn’t strange enough to discover that the alleged shooter, Omar Mateen, worked as a contractor for the US Department of Homeland Security, then we learned that the elder Mateen is also standing to run for President of Afghanistan and is allied with the Taliban leadership – an absolutely ideal profile for a Washington-managed, CIA controlled-opposition political candidate.


  5. Abe
    June 15, 2016 at 15:33

    While the US claims to fight the “Islamic State” as well as pose as a victim of its violence, its NATO partner Turkey is quite literally the source of the terrorist organization’s fighting capacity, with US forces permanently stationed in Turkey for decades and Turkey having been a NATO member since the 1950s. Despite open acknowledgments that the “Islamic State” is operating out of Turkey, the US has used the presence of the terrorist organization inside Syria as a pretext for intervening in the war directly.

    If Omar Mateen was “inspired” by the “Islamic State,” he was inspired by a terrorist organization that at any time the US and its NATO allies could crush – but who have intentionally allowed to operate within NATO territory itself.

    It seems that both in Syria and at home in America, the special interests running Washington have found in the “Islamic State” a perfect tool with which to advance its various political agendas.

    US Terrorism Hits Orlando – Not Just for Syrians Anymore
    By Tony Cartalucci

  6. Zachary Smith
    June 15, 2016 at 14:09

    Regarding Orlando, I favor letting the dust settle. Initial reports (and conclusions) tend to be wrong – in my opinion.

    • Joe Tedesky
      June 15, 2016 at 16:34

      Zachary I agree, that’s what I’m attempting to do as well. Stay tuned, to be continued….

  7. Christene
    June 15, 2016 at 12:45

    I would also like to ask a question of the gun control crowd………As Mr. Obama stands atop his soapbox, sanctimoniously lecturing Americans about senseless gun violence, is anyone in his administration keeping a running tally on the numbers of innocent men, women, and children who have died in the the illegal, covert drone war he has been waging the past 7 years?? You know, the one where he has been lobbing errant bombs throughout the M.E. like Molotav cocktails from air conditioned offices in Las Vegas?! Do those innocent lives lost in senseless violence matter to anyone??

  8. Christene
    June 15, 2016 at 12:37

    The Bible says that Love covers a multitude of sins. When it comes to politics, that verse reads, “Money covers a multitude atrocities.”

    You won’t hear this on CNN, FOX, MSNBC, or any of the mainstream, corporate news media because they would rather tiptoe around the ginormous, oil covered elephant in the room that fills the coffers of politicians on BOTH sides of the aisle. Here it is;
    Perhaps the solution to violent Islamic Extremism is to go to its source and hold those responsible for its spread criminally and financially liable. That someone is, of course, Saudi Arabia. Perhaps it is time the world holds the House of Saud and their co-conspirators Qatar, UAE, and every single bought off Washington politician (AHEM……HILLARY) accountable for the mayhem, death, and destruction they have unleashed upon the world, as the following article so beautifully laid out in this Huffington Post article after the Charlie Hebdo massacre.

    “It would be troublesome but perhaps acceptable for the House of Saud to promote the intolerant and extremist Wahhabi creed just domestically. But, unfortunately, for decades the Saudis have also lavishly financed its propagation abroad. Exact numbers are not known, but it is thought that more than $100 billion have been spent on exporting fanatical Wahhabism to various much poorer Muslim nations worldwide over the past three decades. It might well be twice that number. By comparison, the Soviets spent about $7 billion spreading communism worldwide in the 70 years from 1921 and 1991.”

    The Saudi’s have been building Wahhabi Mosques, madrassas, and Islamic Centers in every country, including the U.S., since the 1970’s. WHY is this not a national conversation?????

    • Gravedigger
      June 16, 2016 at 02:34

      Best comment I’ve ever read on this site, re Islam.

  9. Bill Bodden
    June 15, 2016 at 12:09

    Judging by headlines and catch phrases from the various media some significant lessons in US history were not learned or ignored. According to CNN and MSNBC and other media outlets that followed their lead the Orlando mass shooting was the worst in US history. Most definitely not so. Wikipedia has a long list of massacres of Native Americans including many where the death toll exceeded 50. Then there were the Tulsa race riots in 1921. According to Wikipedia the official count for the dead was 39 but other estimates went as high as 300.

    If we go overseas for other examples of mass shootings in US history the My Lai massacre in South Vietnam will come quickly to the minds of many people. And who knows how many other lesser My Lais took place in South Vietnam?

    Before Vietnam there was the war in the Philippines that was an extension of the Spanish-American War. Estimates put the number of dead Filipinos there at around 600,000. Part of that was no doubt due to many massacres exceeding 50 people in violation of the rules of war. Soldiers who reported atrocities back home were forced by the army to make retractions.

    If we include labor strikes there was the Battle of Blair Mountain with 30 of the strike breakers killed and 50 to 100 of the strikers killed with many more wounded.

    • Anon
      June 15, 2016 at 12:27

      Why are you pouring historical sludge into the crankcase of our dependable narrative, Bill? Do you like seeing it sputtering by the side of the road, unprofitably immobile?

      • Bill Bodden
        June 15, 2016 at 16:44

        Just trying to keep them honest.

        • Anon
          June 15, 2016 at 21:23

          Keep on truckin’, brother…

  10. Grant
    June 15, 2016 at 12:09

    Has anybody seen any bodies yet? Has anybody interviewed any eye witnesses yet? Who are the deceased and wounded? Where are the cell phone videos? There are always cell phone videos.

  11. Anon
    June 15, 2016 at 10:42

    I’d say a familiar post-incident pattern is that the public _is rushed_ to conclusions. “Lone wolf’ was strongly-suggested by LE within hours. The media run with it. Eyewitness accounts like this (from ABC news Sunday night) can’t disturb the established narrative flow:


    Go figure.

    • dahoit
      June 15, 2016 at 12:28

      The MSM ran with that instead of the most logical answer blowback.
      Blowback doesn’t help Zion.End of story.

    • GM
      June 15, 2016 at 13:09

      Media hot take. Video at five!

  12. LondonBob
    June 15, 2016 at 10:38

    Trump didn’t suggest Obama had something to do with the shooting, people can actually see or read his comments for themselves. He did suggest Obama’s failed immigration policies, foreign policy and PC pressure on policing have. All correct.

    That the attack had a homophobic motivation has been ruled out, obvious wishful thinking on your part. So much for your integrity and foresight.

    • dahoit
      June 15, 2016 at 12:27

      Yeah whats up with this site,they think HRC is an answer,and not America First?
      Head scratcher.

    • GM
      June 15, 2016 at 13:08

      No, it hasn’t been ruled out. Investigations are not completed over night and investigators do not reach a conclusion until the entire set of available facts are assembled and analayzed, as opposed to the bits and pieces emerging that everyone already seems to be leaping to point to and shout “aha”, the killer falls into defined category X! Told you so!

  13. Jim
    June 15, 2016 at 08:59

    A simple, undeniable fact. No one in this country would be talking about Muslims unless we decided to invade and bomb their countries.

  14. Daniel
    June 15, 2016 at 08:53

    I agree with the author about the perils of rushing to judgment without facts, and I deplore the shameless, pandering antics of our political class and their counterparts, the corporate-whore media. But to my mind, these outbursts of horrific violence and death have much in common, whether they be perpetrated on school children, church goers or club patrons – they are all committed by demoralized and marginalized persons looking for some – any – relevance in a world gone mad with mass-marketed extremist language and violent impulse.
    And yes, our government is largely to blame for this new and now common violence, as are the other governments of the west – not in the way debunked here (domestic agencies not spotting/preventing these acts) – but by way of making the world such an intolerable place through wars for profit, the constant march of colonialism, and the sorting out of all groups into two and only two camps on every subject: ‘with us or against us’. Such rigid, warring, inhumane ideology – as crippling as any religious dogma (and often employing it) – only serves to marginalize, trivialize, demoralize and anger, leaving many feeling there is nowhere to turn for justice, acceptance or safety.
    Our governments are creating all kinds of terrorists the world over, by way of their endless wars and insufferable machsimo. There is much more to come, I fear. Violence has become a common language, installed now in every sphere of public and private life, and furthered in its acceptance by ‘leaders’ who create and benefit from it. Insecurity, suffering and death is the inevitable result.

    • Joe Tedesky
      June 15, 2016 at 16:48

      Daniel what you wrote here is something I wish I had been able to put into words myself. All to often in these trying days and times we are living through, I feel as you so well put it, that people are being affected by all of this militarism and divided politics that are surrounding us all the time, and then they snap. Our country finds nothing wrong with cutting the budget for mental health, but god forbid we cut the defense budget by even a tenth of a percent. Something is seriously wrong with that logic. With all of the TV and radio ads there are, why can’t we have commercials reaching out to the mentally depressed? Certainly we could do more, if not that. Is it smart to send our military all over this world to kill people. Is there no blow-back to be expected? Does every trade agreement need to overtake national sovereignty, and replace it with corporatism? Okay, I will stop my rant, but Daniel you wrote it well, and thanks for sharing your thought with the rest of us. JT

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