What is scapegoating? When a man opens assault-weapon fire at a gay nightclub and murders more people than any lone assassin in U.S. history, and before more than a smattering of information about his life and motives surfaces, politicians rush to outdo each other in attributing his deranged and evil act to his religion. (See The New York Times for a concise account of Trump’s fear-mongering, and sadly, see Politico for a glimpse of Clinton’s jump onto the scapegoat bandwagon.)
What is scapegoating? When a Baptist preacher in Sacramento, a man of Latino heritage, applauds the deaths of nearly 50 individuals whose sole crime was dancing while gay and Latino, saying, “I think Orlando, Florida, is a little safer tonight. The tragedy is that more of them didn’t die. I’m kind of upset he didn’t finish the job.”
Singling out one facet of identity to blame for whatever the scapegoater detests is always—and I mean always—vicious, untrue, and damaging. Anyone who doubts this needs only shift the practice onto categories normally considered immune in this society. Friday is the first anniversary of the Charleston church massacre, in which a lone gunman killed nine people at a prayer service at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal church. The shooter, Dylann Roof, maintained a website of white supremacist and neo-Nazi material, along with a manifesto with separate sections for “Blacks,” “Jews,” “Hispanics,” and “East Asians.” He said he attacked the Emanuel parishioners because he wanted to start a race war, commending himself on his “bravery.” He belonged to a Lutheran Church.
Imagine Donald Trump—for that matter, imagine anyone—the morning after Roof’s crime, holding a press conference to condemn “Lutheran terrorism.”
Each hour since Omar Mateen opened fire in Orlando has added more information, more complexity, to the story. Witnesses described Mateen’s having previously visited the night club he later attacked, and also being an active user of a gay dating app. Is it possible he was ashamed and conflicted—especially given the violent homophobia of his father, an outspoken Taliban supporter—and acted out his self-hatred and ambivalence on others as a perverse and horrific attempt at redemption? Fariba Nawa, herself an Afghan-American, offers a deeply felt and thought-out essay on the PRI website in which she explores this question and asks her community to acknowledge and interrogate the pervasive homophobia that has resulted in beatings, ostracism, broken lives—and perhaps, in Omar Mateen.
We are all beings of complex and often conflicting motivations. What can we say about the men who perpetrate these crimes, treating other human beings as disposable symbols of their own longed-for dominance? Tara Culp-Pressler has plenty to say about the role of toxic masculinity in mass shootings on ThinkProgress. You owe it to yourself to read her litany of lone gunman and their abusive relationships, frightening the people they held closest, killing others when abusing their families failed to suffice. Then consider the abusive behavior described by Mateen’s ex-wife, Sitora Yusufiy.
Imagine Donald Trump—for that matter, imagine anyone—the 2014 morning after Elliot Rodger opened fire on a Santa Barbara campus to avenge his rejection by women, going on TV to condemn “Male terrorism.” I
The U.S.-born Mateen worked as a security guard for G4S, the world’s largest private security firm, with major contracts with clients including the Department of Homeland Security. His job was at the lowest level—protecting the residents of a gated retirement community—but it required him to pass background checks, including two by the FBI. He was trained to use firearms, encouraged to see himself as a protector of values, and surely inculcated with the various forms of profiling typical of law enforcement and security circles. He was embedded in the gun culture.
As reliably happens in this country, firearms sales skyrocketed following the Orlando shooting. In a culture that equates guns with safety and freedom, fear sells. If Omar Mateen had not been able to legally purchase the type of assault weapon that has no legitimate use in hunting or target-practice, would he have translated his self-hating, fear-filled fantasies into bloody reality? I have been endorsing every campaign to ban assault weapons. At this writing, MoveOn.org’s has nearly half a million signatures.
One of the falsehoods spread by scapegoaters is that terrorism has not been condemned by Muslims. Here are just a few links to counter this lie (thanks for sharing, Andrew Slack), and a moment’s googling will yield more. From London. Here’s a compilation from Belief.net. A compilation from NBC. From The New Yorker.
Mateen’s act of terror targeted two communities, two identities that are vilified by Donald Trump and his supporters. Right after the attack, I shared a graphic posted on Instagram by David Klion to Facebook. It said this: “There will be attempts to pit two vulnerable communities, LGBT and Muslims, against each other. RESIST THEM.”
Since Omar Mateen opened fire, I’ve been hearing from folks who belong to categories singled out for hostility—people of Latin heritage, LGBTQ folks, Muslims—many of whom are social activists, working their hearts out for equity and justice, and right now, doing their best to persevere and offer support despite an even heavier burden of scapegoating-induced hatred coming their way. It is heartbreakingly beautiful to see the tremendous outpouring of love and outrage, consolation and despair sparked by an act that expresses so much about the bumper crop of pain and fear reaped by a society in which an archetypal act of exuberance—dancing, for God’s sake, conviviality and joy—draws a death sentence.
No one denies that terrible acts have been committed in the name of religion—Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, a long and disturbing list. No one denies that terrible acts have been committed in the name of ideologies quite separate from religion: to preserve a social order that perceives constitutional rights as affronts (read about the killing of unarmed student protestors at Kent State and Jackson State in 1970; consider the Soviet gulags). But how we tell these appalling stories shapes our relationship to them and indeed, our future. If we tell them in scapegoat fashion, leaving out most of the truth so as to pretend membership in one vilified category explains an evil that is actually grounded in a pervasive brokenness—well, what’s that thundering noise I hear? A flock of scapegoats coming home to roost.
Homophobia is a cultural issue. Hatred and resentment of Latinos is a cultural issue. Scapegoating is a cultural issue. Hyper-masculinity is a cultural issue. And while cultural means alone may not suffice to to heal them (that assault weapons ban is necessary, for instance), certain interventions will go a long way to help. Share the links in this blog, complicating the story so that it begins to resemble real life rather than a scapegoater’s monochrome fantasy. Speak out when people confidently repeat falsehoods, such as the idea that Muslims fail to oppose terrorism. When people shake their heads and say they can’t understand why this happened, don’t shake your head too: open a conversation about the way scapegoating acts on our culture, misdirecting our attention from the embedded hatreds that distort nearly every community. Help people think about the messages they are putting out (or at least not contradicting) that feed the climate of fear and hatred producing a homegrown terrorist like Omar Mateen, Elliot Rodger, or NRA head Wayne LaPierre, dedicated to ensuring easy access to assault weapons for the next assassin.
Oscar Peterson’s “Hymn to Freedom,” sung by Dione Taylor.