Could anything have prevented the Orlando massacre?
Here's the depressing truth about what could have stopped the massacre
In the wake of tragedy, we look for explanations.
The most comfortable explanations are those that reinforce our preexisting understanding of who is on the side of good and right in our active debates. Inevitably, people on the other side complain about politicization, but at least it's channeling the feelings of helplessness into what proponents see as constructive activity. The only ones with real cause to complain are not one's political opponents, but the victims' families.
Of course, these politicized explanations are not mutually exclusive, and eventually someone like Jeffrey Goldberg comes along and points this out.
Tragedy doesn't have a single moral. It can be about many things. This is also true — and if it leads to a bit of mutual respect by the competing sides in the war to own the narrative that emerges from a tragedy like the one in Orlando, Florida, then it's also a good thing. Maybe we'll get more sensible gun laws and more resources for mental illness and a better system for monitoring jihadi groups.
But would any of those actions, even if worthy, have prevented this particular massacre? An explanation isn't the same as a diagnosis. And even a diagnosis doesn't imply a cure.
Omar Mateen was a Muslim, and he was clearly inspired by Islamic State propaganda. But he wasn't especially devout, and when the FBI looked into his activities in the past, they found no real ties to any radical organization. Was there any legitimate reason for the state to have taken action against him on the basis of his political views? If so, what was it? Meanwhile, we're already fighting the Islamic State on the battlefield — with how much success being a subject of heated debate. But Islamism isn't an organization, much less a state; it's an idea (and not a particularly coherent one). How do ideas "cause" actions? How do you know when they will do so and when they won't? And if an idea is your enemy, how do you "defeat" it? And even if our goal is merely to cordon off our homeland from abhorrent ideas, short of a home-grown equivalent of the Great Firewall of China, how is that to be done?
Much the same holds for hatred of gays as an explanation. The Orlando massacre certainly looks like — among other things — a massive hate crime against gay people. Mateen was disgusted and enraged by open displays of same-sex affection, and seems to have targeted the club for that reason. But this — hatred or fear of varieties of sexuality — is a feeling. How do you know when it will lead to action? And even so, what are you to do? Feelings can be repressed, by an individual — and their expression can be suppressed, by the state. But can they be "defeated?" Even in Mateen's own case, it looks like his murderous antipathy was of relatively recent vintage. If a man can go from being friends with a drag queen to murdering dozens for their sexual orientation, what hope is there to "end hate?"
Guns, at least, are physical things. They can be controlled — to some degree. But to what degree? Mateen had no criminal record. He passed a federal background check. He had been employed in private security — so even if you passed laws requiring more stringent training before one could acquire firearms, he would likely have passed it. The particular guns that he used could be banned, and it's surely worth looking at ways to reduce the lethality of mass shootings by limiting magazine size and the like. But that's likely the limit of what could be achieved short of a revolutionary change in our national relationship with firearms.
People are also physical things. Goldberg doesn't mention immigration as one of the narrative threads in play, but of course a certain presidential candidate showed no such hesitancy. And, indeed, in a world where America accepted no refugee immigrants, Mateen's father would not have come to America, and so Mateen would not have been born an American citizen, and been in a position to perpetrate his crime. But of course, he came decades ago, back when the Soviets were fighting in Afghanistan. At that time, the Afghans were our allies. With his delusions of being a candidate for the Afghan presidency, Mateen's father sounds like a Central Asian Rupert Pupkin, but that doesn't change the objective fact that his country was invaded and brutally occupied by America's chief adversary, nor the fact that we were actively arming his countrymen to aid them in their fight. Keeping Afghan refugees out would have made as much moral sense as closing the door on our Hmong allies (who, incidentally, proved their successful assimilation to American culture by producing their own mass-shooter).
And then there's mental illness. One is tempted to say that anybody who could commit such an atrocity must have been insane. And yet, that's an after-the-fact diagnosis. What indications of insanity predated the massacre? A former co-worker said he made frequent racist and homophobic comments, was "unhinged and unstable," and stalked him via text. Should the police have taken precautionary action? Well — ask any female journalist about the difficulty getting any kind of protection from cyber-stalkers. Is there any reason to believe that Mateen would have sought help for his (possibly steroid-induced) psychological problems? And in the absence of his own initiative, how would he have gotten help?
I am not trying to be fatalistic. There may well be patterns to the kinds of mass shootings that America is plagued with, or to the identities of the people who move from sympathy with jihadi aims to lone-wolf violence, or to any of the other factors that this tragedy was "about." If we find those patterns, they may be the basis for policy changes that could prevent future such tragedies. But a pattern emerges from data, not from a narrative.
We make sense of the world by telling stories; our brains are hard-wired for narrative. That's why politics takes the shape it does — because we need to tell stories to engage emotionally. But policies should be driven by data, not anecdote. Plenty of perfectly sensible policy reforms that would do real good would not have prevented this tragedy, and plenty of policies that may seem justified as the only way to have prevented it are actually wild overreactions. Let's use our hearts to heal the wounds. Let's use our heads when it comes to crafting the response.