In many respects, the aftermath of the US’s latest mass shooting in Orlando followed a familiar pattern. Calls for gun control were met with opposing calls to protect the Second Amendment of the US Constitution and to resist making political capital from such a tragic event. But once it was established that the killer, Omar Mateen, had pledged allegiance to Islamic State, concerns about over-politicising the attack were quickly forgotten.
This narrative seemed to drown out all other perspectives on the attack. It was now no longer just your everyday run-of-the-mill mass shooting – this was terrorism. It was “an attack on us all”, on “our way of life”. So loud and familiar was this narrative that any attempts to discuss alternative perspectives on the attack were also shouted down.
It’s not that these different perspectives came out of left field – frankly it isn’t exactly strange to suggest that a mass shooting in a gay night club may be somehow motivated by homophobia. But time and time again this reasoning was trumped by the view that this was a terrorist attack, full stop.
The clearest example of this was Owen Jones, a prominent left-wing and LGBT activist journalist, who stormed off the set of Sky News following assertions from the presenter, Mark Longhurst, and fellow guest, broadcaster Julia Hartley-Brewer, that the Orlando attack was on “human beings” in general and that the LGBT community has “no ownership of horror”.
To be clear, the LGBT community certainly does not have ownership of horror. But the Orlando attack was clearly designed to intimidate, frighten and hurt the LGBT community in the same way as the mass-shooting in June 2015 at an African-American church in Charleston, North Carolina, was designed to strike at the black community. When Dylann Roof shot dead nine people during a prayer service in the hopes of starting a race war, nobody questioned whether Roof was racially motivated.
So why – if that attack was broadly accepted as a race-hate crime – do some people have such trouble accepting that the Orlando shootings was a homophobic attack? Perhaps the better question to ask is why the Charleston attacks were not – like Orlando has been – labelled as “terrorism”.
Violence and symbolism
Terrorism is not just about the body count; it is about the symbolism behind the attack. The targeting of a gay night club in Orlando was an integral part of this message that Mateen wanted to send. Yet somehow, because there is evidence linking Mateen to Islamic extremism – but none of a formal link to any group – it appears to be that this motive overrides the homophobic element of his crime.
Terrorism is essentially politically motivated violence. The UK defines terrorism as the use or threat of violence that must be for the “purpose of advancing a political, religious, racial or ideological cause”. This use or threat of violence must also be designed to influence the government or intimidate the public or section of the public. These terms are incredibly broad, as definitions of terrorism invariably are. The US does not have one single definition of terrorism – rather, it has multiple definitions used by different state agencies for different purposes. Nevertheless, the requirement for a political motive is often a common element of many definitions of terrorism.
Islamic extremism may satisfy this UK definition of terrorism or any definition that emphasises the politically motivated nature of the violence. However, so too would an attacker, motivated by homophobia, who is seeking to send a message to the government or to intimidate the LGBT community. There is no tension between these two competing frames. An attacker such as Roof, seeking to start a race war, would also satisfy this definition of terrorism.
But Islamic extremism now seems to have a monopoly on terrorism. The December 2015 mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, by a couple who “pledged allegiance to the Islamic State” is terrorism – meanwhile, the November 2015 attack on a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs by Robert Lewis Dear who expressed anti-abortion statements is not.
In reality, what this debate reveals is the subjective nature of how the term terrorism is used by the media and politicians. Some of this may be explained simply by journalists and politicians trying to make sense of an event by using a “frame” that is familiar to them.
However, there may be other political motivations to choosing one frame over another. The frame of Islamic terrorism reasserts the threat from the Islamic state and can be used to justify counter-terrorist or military measures against them. Alternatively, drowning out the homophobic aspect of the attack can deflect attention away from politicians whose record on gay rights or gun control is questionable at best.
In turn, there are clear dangers of reserving the label of “terrorism” solely for “Islamic extremism”. It hinders, rather than helps, the understanding of terrorism by heightening the subjective nature of the term. This can then further vilify a minority community already under the suspicious gaze of a fearful public.
The Orlando shootings are a textbook example of where labelling somebody a terrorist tells us more about the person applying the label than it does about the person labelled. The worst mass shooting in US history can be both an act of terrorism and an act of homophobia – there is no tension between the two, apart from in the eyes of the beholder.