Friday, June 17, 2016
Business Recorder column June 13, 2016
US shooting Rashed Rahman A US citizen of Afghan descent, Omar Mateen, gunned down 50 people and wounded another 53 in a gay club in Orlando, Florida on June 12. It is being described as the worst such atrocity in the country's history. The club presented a scene of carnage and splattered blood after the gunman opened fire with an assault rifle and a handgun, eventually persuading a police SWAT team to mount an assault. The gunman was killed and 30 people held hostage by him were freed. Many of the wounded are said to be in critical condition in hospital. The death toll therefore may well go up. Condemnations naturally came thick and fast, including from President Barack Obama. Initially, contradictory reports emerged whether the motivation for the shooting was religious extremism or homophobia. The latter explanation was offered by the shooter's father, who quoted an incident the other day in which Mateen got infuriated at the sight of two men kissing in the presence of his wife and child. Even if that impelled Mateen to attack a gay club, this was not the real or even complete picture. As information about Mateen poured out, it underlined a phenomenon of our times that threatens every right thinking human being on the planet. It turns out that Mateen was investigated by the FBI in 2013 and 2014 for possible links with Islamic extremism. However, the FBI could not find sufficient evidence to prove the links and closed the investigation. Mateen bought the two weapons he used to carry out the Orlando massacre a week before the attack. On the eve of his bloody spree, he called the police helpline 911 to declare his affiliation with Islamic State (IS). An ex-wife has described Mateen as mentally disturbed (bipolar) and violent. Meanwhile IS has indirectly owned Mateen through a terse statement issued by its Amaq agency that the Orlando attack was an IS operation. The Orlando authorities have declared there is no further threat but have imposed an emergency as a precaution. It is not clear whether the timing of the attack was purely subjective (as Mateen's father suggested) or had anything to do with the fact that this is Gay Pride month in the US. The FBI is treating the attack as a terrorist incident Three aspects of this horrific incident deserve comment. First, the immediate fallout of the massacre is the issue of terrorism and gun control arriving centre-stage in the US presidential race. Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton has cautioned against conflating the ethnic and religious identity of Mateen into a wholesale condemnation of Muslims or Islam. Arguing for a distinction between Islamist extremism/terrorism and the vast majority of American Muslims as well as Muslims all over the world, she said generalised condemnation on the basis of one individual's actions of an entire religious community or the religion per se would play into the hands of IS and similar groups that threaten all of us (Muslims first and foremost). In answer to a reporter's question, she interpreted a relatively recent decision of the US Supreme Court as providing justification for constitutionally mandated measures to ensure guns do not fall into the hands of terrorists or criminals through more thorough background checks. While the argument is unassailable, Mateen's case proves that an individual investigated in the past for possible extremist/terrorist connections/sympathies, had no difficulty purchasing a deadly automatic assault rifle and handgun. Clearly, the background checks have no universal data base for such gun buyers. Republican candidate Donald Trump, however, not unexpectedly, trumpeted an 'I told you so' claim to have been right on arguing for more stringent actions against terrorists, while ignoring the fact (conveniently) that his line of reasoning had relegated all Muslims (and others) indiscriminately to the doghouse. Trump is on the side of the gun lobby that hides its deadly trade behind the umbrella/facade of the US constitution's Second Amendment, guaranteeing the right of US citizens to bear arms. This is a classic case of a constitutional amendment adopted in the context of the US's war of independence and the period after when the new state had weak armed forces and was still imbued with ideas of people's militias protecting the citizenry being used for very different (and dangerous) purposes. The US no longer needs militias or terrorists and criminals using the loopholes in the law to lay their hands on deadly weapons and wreak the kind of mayhem seen in Orlando. Second, Omer Mateen's may be a case of a US-born child of Afghan immigrants fleeing war in their own country coming unhinged in the very different and incrementally tolerant of people's sexual and other choices kind of society that the US has/is becoming. The testimony of his ex-wife points in that direction. His father's account indicates his extreme reaction to a public manifestation of homosexuality (no longer unthinkable in the US). His mental state may have preceded his 'conversion' to hate-filled anger at the society he was alienated from and may even have facilitated it. Given these facts and his record of past investigation regarding links/sympathies with extremist/terrorist ideas, the failure of gun controls in place to deny such an obvious candidate for the appellation 'dangerous' from acquiring the means to kill is simply mind boggling. It goes to the heart of issues such as the problematic of integration of people of different backgrounds into an increasingly tolerant society, some of whose manifestations fill religious extremists with uncontrollable rage, and the clinging of wide sections of American public opinion to a distorted interpretation of a historically received right to bear arms in a completely different setting. Third, Omar Mateen's actions pose serious questions about the kind of mindset that lies behind such barbarism. Extremist religious dogma has grown into a monster that threatens enlightened humanity (especially believers who do not subscribe to such madness). It has spread since the Afghan war of the 1980s to date and permutated into new and even more virulent forms. This is the revenge of history on all those (the west and Pakistan leading the list) who employed religious fanatical proxies in order to defeat communism. That aim of the Cold War was achieved, but the world at large continues to pay the cost of that unthinking of consequences strategy. The ideas of the extremist ideologues have permeated far too many minds in the Muslim world and even infiltrated into the minds of young people (immigrant origin as well as native) in the west and the rest of the world. This produces a sense of outraged righteousness, exaggerated entitlement (the 'ticket to heaven' syndrome) and blinkers regarding Islam's message of peace, responsibility, tolerance and respect for life. Sadly, the history of conquest, exploitation and oppression of Muslim and other third world countries by western colonialism and imperialism has left deep resentments in the hearts of the victims of this process. Sad because after it seemed the socialist challenge to this rapaciousness had failed to deliver, young minds increasingly have been attracted to the false dawn of Islamist radicalism, a cul de sac in terms of human history, if ever there was one.