For the fifteenth time in his presidency, Barack Obama appeared this morning before the American public to express his sadness and shock at a mass shooting. Just hours before, a gunman, identified as 29-year old Omar Mateen, opened fire with an assault rifle (AR-15) and possibly a handgun at a gay club called Pulse in Orlando, Florida. The precise facts of what transpired are yet to be established, but this much is known: he commenced firing just a little after 2 AM on Sunday morning, was then holed up in the club with hostages, and was finally taken down in a gunfight with a SWAT [Special Weapons and Tactics] team around 5 AM. But this was not before Mateen had killed at least 50 people; at least another 53 people have been injured, some critically. This carnage is being described as the “worst mass shooting” in American history.
The gunman’s name identifies him as a Muslim. The media chatter all morning has swirled around speculations about Mateen’s possible fidelity to ISIS, his links if any with ISIS or other Islamic “radical” groups, his friendships with those who might have been similarly radicalized, or his probable homophobic tendencies. The killer’s father has issued a statement where he has disavowed any possible connection between the killing and “religion”—he did not mention Islam by name—and he has suggested that that his son was repulsed by his sighting in Miami of two men kissing each other in public several months ago. It has also emerged that minutes before Mateen started firing, he placed a call to 911 and pledged his allegiance to ISIS. Mateen had apparently come to the attention of the FBI a few years ago for possible links to radical groups but was no longer under surveillance.
In the hours and days ahead, a picture will be formed of the gunman’s motivations. Most likely, it will be established that he had been radicalized by ISIS videos and literature, and that he was moderately active on social media sites which espouse radical Islamic views. The carnage will be described as arising from a conjuncture of circumstances: all over the United States there are celebrations these days of gay pride, and Mateen may have chosen this moment to signal both his abhorrence of homosexuality and his acceptance of radical jihadists’ denunciation of homosexuality as a form of wickedness intrinsic to the West. The abhorrence of homosexuality is, of course, not particular to ISIS or Islamic extremists: the Wahhabi state of Saudi Arabia does not tolerate open expressions of homosexual conduct, and likewise many Christian fundamentalists are also violently homophobic. But these comparisons will not be allowed to disturb the placid waters of American reporting, especially not at this juncture. We can also be certain that, whatever Mateen’s motivations, the Orlando massacre will now be exploited by Trump, whose credentials as an utterly shameless person are well established, to the hilt.
Speaking with an air of resignation, President Obama mentioned that investigators would go wherever the facts take them. It may be that he has come around to the view that no intervention by him can make an iota of difference, and that as Consoler-in-Chief he can only express his condolences to the families of the victims, congratulate various law enforcement agencies for stepping into the line of fire, rally the American public, and ask for God’s guidance and wisdom in helping the nation meet such challenges. Indeed, it is beyond him to do anything else at all, for the simple reason that what we are dealing with here is not a “mass shooting” but rather mass delusion. Whatever the gunman’s motivations, or his state of mind, the one indubitable fact is that he was able to access an assault rifle, a handgun, and possibly explosives. In Florida, an assault rifle can be purchased legally, which is in itself an outrageous statement on the affairs of this nation. However, it is quite immaterial whether Mateen was able to make a legal purchase of an assault rifle in Florida, since such legal gun purchases are possible in other states; there is, moreover, an open arms market, including one on Facebook. The “facts” that the FBI and other investigative agencies will chase down are altogether irrelevant; they will establish merely the history of the weapons in question, and, at best, whether Mateen may have been assisted by others in procuring such weapons.
What does it mean, then, to suggest that the Orlando shooting is nothing other than a visceral demonstration of the fact that the United States is living through a period of “mass delusion”? To be deluded, the Oxford English Dictionary informs us, is to accept foolishly a false or mistaken belief; a delusion is “a false impression or opinion, especially as a symptom of mental illness.” Another dictionary definition offers an elaboration: a delusion is persistence in an idiosyncratic belief that is maintained despite being contradicted by reality or rational argument, and this is typically a symptom of mental disorder. Mateen’s ex-wife has stated that he was abusive in their relationship and beat her often; she describes him as someone who was “unstable”. Let us leave aside for the moment the colossal understatement involved in characterizing the gunman as “unstable”: one would think that anyone who perpetrates such a massacre is, in some sense of the term, unstable.
What is far more germane to my argument is that the characterization of Mateen as someone who was of unsound mind ought not to be allowed to obfuscate the graver reality that begs to be recognized. In an earlier blog, precipitated by a shooting at a community college in Oregon last year, where too the killer, Chris Harper Mercer, was described as a “loner” with a history of mental illness, I had called for the National Rifle Association to be declared a criminal or terrorist organization and be banned. The same pussyfooting that has characterized the response to every mass shooting will doubtless be on witness again in the days ahead. There will be much discussion of the necessity of background checks, tightening gun laws, restricting the number of firearms an individual can buy, and so on. The lunatic NRA will respond with predictable bravado, suggesting that “guns do not kill, people do”, and that the only way America can be made safe is to ensure that guns do not fall into the wrong hands and that a well-armed people is the best retort to killers. Other well-meaning people will chip in with the observation that hunting is nothing less than a sacred American tradition: indeed, though I have not verified this, it would not be surprising if every American president has not declared a fondness for hunting. Some noise will be generated; and, then, life will go on. Another shooting will be around the corner, as it must.
A few generations from now, when one hopes that the United States will join the rank of civilized nations and virtually ban private ownership of firearms, or make the conditions so restrictive as to virtually eliminate violence by firearms, Americans will wonder how and why the country labored under a mass delusion for so long. This mass delusion begins with a primitivist not to mention outrageously silly reading of the second amendment to the US Constitution. The mental illness of which many previous killers have been accused is in actuality the mental disorder that now afflicts this nation as a whole. Despite all evidence to the contrary, the NRA and the millions of their supporters in the wider public domain have persisted in peddling the view that gun ownership is an inviolable part of American identity, that private ownership of guns makes people safe, and that the antidote to gun violence is more guns. It is not the “lone wolf” or the insanity of one gunman that we need to be worried about, but rather the state of lunacy to which the United States has been reduced. No diagnostic manual has a known remedy for the mass delusion through which the United States is now living.