James Alan Fox
June 12, 2016
Knowing the Orlando shooter's motive needn't shape how we respond to his murderous rampage.
More than 100 casualties, including at least 50 dead, at an Orlando nightclub that catered to the LGBT community. Yet another challenge for police investigators at the crime scene and security experts on the tube is to try to make sense of what seems, at least at this early stage, so hideously senseless.
Ordinarily, the news of a mass shooting would suggest to most people the desperate act of some deranged individual indiscriminately targeting innocent strangers who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. However, mass murderers are typically far more selective and methodical in their planning and execution. Most mass killers coolly and systematically seek to punish specific people or specific groups whom they hold responsible for their own misfortunes or for ruining society.
Terror, or just hate?
Not surprisingly, given our terrorism-phobic state of mind, it didn't take long for the specter of Islamic extremism to make its way into the conversation surrounding the latest in a growing list of large scale shooting sprees. Even before the final death toll at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando was known, the authorities had already assumed that the attack was an act of terrorism, be it international or domestic.
The terrorism link was given credence once we learned of the gunman's heritage, suggested by his surname. It was also noted that an Islamic State terrorist spokesman reportedly suggested a jihadist could earn extra credit for slaughtering the infidels during this time of Ramadan. Within hours, reports surfaced that the gunman had made a 911 phone call proclaiming his allegiance to ISIL and referencing the Boston Marathon bombing case. He had also been investigated for possible terrorist connections but without any definitive findings.
Although the assailant might indeed have been a lone-wolf terrorist, he could also have been motivated by pure hate - not so much hate for American society, but hate specifically for gays. It is conceivable that the assailant responded to the higher stakes of Ramadan, but he could also have reacted to this being the month of gay pride celebrations or even to the ongoing controversy over transgender bathroom access. He got "very angry" recently when he saw two men kissing in public, his father told NBC News.
Hate-inspired attacks on gays occur all too often in this country without any special connection to terrorism, organized or lone-wolf. On the same day as the Orlando mass shooting, an unrelated plan to attack the Los Angeles gay pride parade was thwarted.
Securing the borders or the doors
Beyond deciphering the gunman's precise motivation and state of mind, there are important questions about the proper response going forward. Should we beef up security at nightclubs, or perhaps just clubs and other locations and events that attract a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender crowd? After the 2012 massacre at a Colorado cinema, many movie theaters increased security, at least for a while. And following the 2012 massacre in Newtown, Conn., the NRA and others advocated having armed guards at schools of every size and type across America.
Aside from the questionable appropriateness and effectiveness of such a strategy, there is an important downside to taking a fortress-like approach. If indeed this most recent shooting was motivated by Islamic extremism, then making life more inconvenient for all of us (as in security lines at airports) would play right into the hands of our enemies. Terrorists want more than taking a few American lives; they want to see us suffer by giving up the very freedoms that we cherish.
Obsessing over body counts
One thing we can and should do is to change the dialogue associated with the Orlando shooting. Many news media critics argue, rightly so, that continually mentioning the names of mass murderers brings them undeserved notoriety - that we should not speak the names of those who commit unspeakable horrors.
The same concern holds with regard to the offensively excessive number of times that on-air commentators mention that the Orlando massacre is the largest mass shooting in U.S. history, as if it would be any less tragic were it not the largest.
Repeating over and over that the Orlando massacre is a record for the nation only serves as a challenge to like-minded individuals to outperform their hero. After all, records are made to be broken.
James Alan Fox is the Lipman Professor of Criminology, Law and Public Policy at Northeastern University and a member of the USA TODAY Board of Contributor. He is also co-author of Extreme Killing: Understanding Serial and Mass Murders.