Chapter 45: Orlando

Published October 3, 2017

The killer, 29, was an American. He had been born in New York, in Queens. He now lived in Florida, about 125 miles south of Orlando. He had worked for the same firm as a security guard since 2007. He had a license to carry a gun.

He’d had behavioral issues in school. Teachers described him as oppositional, lacking remorse, and verbally abusive. He had allegedly been bullied for being a dork. “You could tell it hurt his feelings,” said a former classmate.

When the killer had been in seventh grade, a teacher had told his father that the boy would “find greater social acceptance amongst his peers and thus gain self-confidence” if he could better control his antisocial impulses.

One man who had worked with the killer as a security guard said the man often used slurs against racial minorities, Jews, women, and gay people. “You meet bigots, but he was above and beyond,” the coworker said. “He was always angry, swearing, just angry at the world.”

The killer’s ex-wife said he was physically abusive and mentally unstable. “He would just come home and start beating me up because the laundry wasn’t done,” she said.

The killer was of Islamic faith. For a time, he’d been on the FBI’s terrorist watch list after making comments to coworkers in 2013 about having ties to terrorist groups. The FBI had interviewed him twice. They had used an undercover informant to secretly record him. They had conducted surveillance of his movements and monitored his communication. They had found no ties to any terrorist groups.

The FBI had interviewed him again in 2014 when investigating a Florida man who had joined al-Qaida and carried out a suicide bombing in Syria. The killer had met this man at a local mosque years earlier. Again, the FBI found nothing to warrant further action.

The killer had broken no laws. The FBI had determined that the threat risk had never gone beyond the guy talking up jihad. They couldn’t lock him up for that. If they did, people would cry that the FBI was violating his civil rights, and they would be right. The killer’s name – Omar Mateen – was removed from the FBI’s terrorist watch list.

On the night of Saturday, June 11, 2016, Mateen reportedly drove around Orlando for several hours, stopping at a few locations before landing at a gay nightclub called Pulse at approximately 2 a.m. on Sunday, June 12.

Mateen called 911 and declared allegiance to Islamic State. He had a Sig Sauer MCX assault rifle—similar to an AR-15 or an M-16 like those used in Vietnam—and a handgun. He had purchased both guns legally from a gun shop near his home less than two weeks earlier.

After a brief skirmish at the door, Mateen got into the club and opened fire on the crowd, eventually holding hostages for three hours. The killer told hostage negotiators that he was an Islamic soldier. He said he had suicide vests and threatened to strap them on hostages. Neither claim was true.

Mateen accessed social media during the three hours to see how much coverage the attack was getting. He also exchanged text messages with his wife, wanting to know if it was on the news.

Finally, a SWAT team blasted a hole in a wall, drove an armored car through it, and killed Mateen. He had shot more than 100 people, killing 49 and wounding more than 50, many seriously. The death toll was projected to rise, but thanks to heroic work by doctors, nurses, and emergency responders, all of the wounded were eventually expected to recover.

As soon as word of the shooting hit the streets, Republican presumptive presidential nominee Donald Trump sent this tweet: “Appreciate the congrats for being right on radical Islamic terrorism. I nailed it.”

Trump was patting himself on the back for predicting, after the San Bernardino shooting six months earlier, that something similar would happen again, as if no one else could have predicted it. In fact, government officials had said after the San Bernardino attack that future incidents involving radicalized Muslims in the United States were inevitable. I will go out on a limb right now and predict that the Pulse shooting won’t be the last radical extremist attack on U.S. soil either, regardless of who becomes president. Does this make me Nostradamus?

More disturbing than Trump gleefully congratulating himself was his politicizing the tragedy while the sirens of ambulances taking dozens of people to hospitals were still wailing. He expressed no grief, sympathy for the victims, or head-shaking despair over what was being called the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history. Trump acted on no impulse to use his position as the presidential nominee of one of our two major parties to allay people’s fears or, heaven forbid, try to bring the country together. Not until Monday, more than a day after the attacks, did he offer sympathies to the victims and their families.

After congratulating himself, Trump’s next move was to blame the president. He railed about Obama not describing the shooting as “an act of Islamic terrorism,” as if by refusing to use those words, Obama was responsible for the mayhem. “When will we get tough, smart, and vigilant?” Trump said. “Because our leaders are weak, I said this was going to happen—and it is only going to get worse. I am trying to save lives and prevent the next terrorist attack. We can’t afford to be politically correct anymore.”

Trump said Obama should resign because he “disgracefully refused to even say the words ‘radical Islam.’” My head had been spinning over the relevance of this since Republicans had first made it an issue the year before. If the killer had been Christian instead of Muslim, should the president have called it an act of “radical Christian terrorism?” Some of us might just call it a mass shooting by a deranged individual with an assault rifle.

“What exactly would using this label accomplish?” Obama asked. “What exactly would it change? There’s no magic to the phrase ‘radical Islam.’ Someone seriously thinks we don’t know who we’re fighting? If anyone thinks we’re confused who our enemies are, that would come as a surprise to the thousands of terrorists we’ve taken off the battlefield.”

Trump said lax immigration policies under Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had led to the attacks in Orlando and San Bernardino. This was a puzzling statement because the Orlando shooter and the husband in the San Bernardino shooting had both been born and bred in the United States. In fact, the Orlando killer had been born in Queens, just like Trump.

Nonetheless, Trump doubled down on his proposed ban of all Muslims from entering the United States, expanding it to also include all people from certain countries. “When I become president I will suspend immigration from areas of the world where there’s a proven history of terrorism against the United States, Europe, and our allies,” he said. “The only reason the killer was in America in the first place was because we allowed his family to come here.”

And the only reason I’m here is because my grandparents were allowed to come here from Eastern Europe before World War II.

Mateen’s parents had come to the United States from Afghanistan after the former Soviet Union invaded the country in 1979. Ronald Reagan was president when they came here. The killer hadn’t been born yet. Obama had been in high school.

“They’re pouring in, and we don’t know what we’re doing,” Trump said. “Why does Hillary Clinton want to bring people here—in vast numbers—who reject our values? The burden is on Hillary Clinton to tell us why she believes immigration from these dangerous countries should be increased.”

Clinton had never said immigration from “dangerous countries” should be increased—but I’m still scratching my head, trying to figure out what any of this had to do with the shooting in Orlando. The shooter had been American—and the vast majority of terrorist attacks and mass shootings in the United States since 1980 have been by non-Muslims.

“We have proposals from the presumptive Republican nominee for president of the United States to bar all Muslims from immigrating to America,” Obama said. “We hear language that singles out immigrants and suggests entire religious communities are complicit in violence. Where does this stop? Are we going to start treating all Muslim Americans differently? Are we going to start discriminating against them because of their faith?” The president reiterated that groups like ISIS want to portray America as being at war with Islam. He said Trump’s position was “doing the terrorists’ work for them.”

“Our president doesn’t know what he’s doing,” Trump said. “He’s failed us, and he’s failed us badly. And under his leadership, this situation will not get any better, it will only get worse, and I’ve been saying that for a long time.” Trump said Obama “continues to prioritize our enemy over our allies, and for that matter, the American people. When I am president, it will always be America first.”

Trump claimed that Muslim immigrants don’t assimilate into American culture and don’t report on fellow Muslims who may be planning terrorist attacks even though “they know what’s going on.”

Want to get crazier? Let’s get crazier.

It wasn’t just Obama’s immigration policies that had somehow caused the lunatic in Orlando to kill 49 people. Trump actually implied, or led us to infer, that the incident was part of the clandestine anti-American Muslim crusade that the president had been spearheading since conning his way into the White House in 2008.

Of course, Trump didn’t come out and say this. He didn’t have to. He’d beaten around this bush before: Obama was secretly a Muslim, not a Christian, and there was something fishy that we didn’t know about going on with this president.

“He doesn’t get it, or he gets it better than anybody understands,” Trump said. “It’s one or the other, and either one is unacceptable.” So Obama was, at best, completely ignorant about terrorism and, at worst, was a terrorist—“one or the other”!

“Look, we’re led by a man that either is not tough, not smart, or he’s got something else in mind,” Trump said. “And that something else in mind … you know, people can’t believe it. People cannot, they cannot believe that President Obama is acting the way he acts and can’t even mention the words ‘radical Islamic terrorism.’ There’s something going on. It’s inconceivable. There’s something going on.”

There’s something going on.

Of course, a large number of Republicans had already believed Obama was a Muslim before Trump reignited the discussion while blood was still draining from Orlando victims’ gunshot wounds. Trump had maintained for years that Obama was secretly a Muslim. He had referred to Obama in Twitter messages as “the black Muslim in the White House.” His accusations smacked of McCarthyism—just replace “Muslim” with “Communist.”

But Trump’s implication wasn’t just that the president was a Muslim. The implication was that he was an Islamic terrorist.

“Yesterday morning, just one day after the massacre, (Trump) went on TV and suggested President Obama is on the side of the terrorists,” Clinton said. “Just think about that for a second. Even in a time of divided politics, this is way beyond anything that should be said by someone running for president. I have to ask: Will responsible Republican leaders stand up to their presumptive nominee or will they stand by his accusation about our president?”

Of course, Trump also had raised the specter of Ted Cruz’s father being connected to the Kennedy assassination and had hinted that the Clintons may have murdered Vince Foster, so why was anyone surprised by this? The message that Obama was secretly a Muslim and leading a Muslim takeover of the country was believed by many Republican voters. Whether party leaders who spewed or supported this garbage seriously believed it was what I wondered about.

To gay people, the Orlando shooting smacked of a hate crime because it happened in a gay club. Mateen’s father said his son had appeared angered recently when seeing two men kissing. The killer’s ex-wife and others said he seemed to hate homosexuals.

As more details emerged, it appeared Mateen may have been gay. Theories surfaced that he may have been filled with self-loathing that had played a role in the attack. Witnesses said the killer had been to the club before, and some reported having seen him on gay websites.

Trump tried to play the gay card, saying Clinton “wants to allow radical Islamic terrorists to pour into our country” to “enslave women and murder gays.” I loved his use of the word “gays.” He sounded like Archie Bunker, the loveable bigot from Norman Lear’s groundbreaking 1970s sitcom, All in the Family. On second thought, Archie would have said “fags.” But Trump still reminded me of him.

Although Mateen had pledged himself to the Islamic State before the killings, he had done so to a 911 operator. There was no evidence that he’d ever had any contact with the terrorist group. He didn’t even appear to know the difference between Shiite and Sunni, as evidenced by his professed past support for multiple conflicting groups, including Hezbollah, a sworn enemy of ISIS.

Though the Islamic State and other terrorist groups seek to enlist “lone wolves” to carry out terrorist attacks, there was no evidence that was the case here. As more information came forward on Mateen, he looked more like a tortured soul filled with anger and hate who had decided to shoot a bunch of people. The warning signs had been there. He was one of those insecure losers who had gone off the deep end.

“Inspired terrorism” became a new term for the acts of the “self-radicalized,” who are “inspired” to join a cause through propaganda on the Internet and then go perpetrate their own mayhem in support of the cause. Buying an assault rifle and killing lots of people is not hard to do. Preventing someone from doing so is.

Trump’s focus on immigration and Islamic terrorism when the Orlando shooting seemed to have nothing to do with either may have been his way of deflecting attention from where he knew it would inevitably go.

“We need to keep guns like the ones used last night out of the hands of terrorists or other violent criminals,” Clinton said. “It reminds us once more that weapons of war have no place on our streets.”

Trump took the opposite view, that more guns need to be out there to protect against lunatics like the Orlando killer. He said he would meet with the National Rifle Association, which had endorsed him, to discuss how Americans could better arm themselves to defend against terrorist attacks.

“If you had some guns in that club the night that this took place … you wouldn’t have had the tragedy that you had,” Trump said.

There may indeed be a need for more armed security at these kinds of places, but the thought of hundreds of people drinking alcohol and packing firearms doesn’t exactly sound safe, either.

Trump again charged Clinton with wanting to “abolish the Second Amendment,” saying her answer to the Orlando shooting was to ban guns. “Her plan is to disarm law-abiding Americans, abolishing the Second Amendment, and leaving only the bad guys and terrorists with guns,” Trump said.

Claiming gun controls don’t work, Trump cited France as having “among the toughest gun laws anywhere in the world, and 130 people were brutally murdered by Islamic terrorists in cold blood.”

Would stricter gun laws have prevented the Orlando shooting? Possibly. If someone who had been on the terrorist watch list weren’t allowed to buy an assault rifle, the situation might have been prevented. But even if it wouldn’t have, even if this guy would have been able to get such a weapon on the black market, don’t certain restrictions on who should be able to buy such weapons legally make sense on their face?

Whatever you call it—radical Islamic terrorism or just mass murder—and whether the gunman was Muslim, Jewish, Christian, or Buddhist, he had walked into a gun store and legally bought an assault rifle, then shot more than 100 people. To not question whether this person’s Second Amendment rights should take precedence over the threat he posed would be irresponsible, yet this was the Republican position. Lindsay Graham made it clear when he bellowed to his fellow Congressmen on the floor of the House the day after the shooting: “This has nothing to do with guns.” I believe I heard applause.

The sale of assault weapons doesn’t necessarily have to be banned. A higher threshold could be set for the purchase of an assault weapon than a handgun. Is that so crazy? Is it crazy not to let people on the no-fly or terrorist watch list buy assault weapons? To let them do so seems crazy to me.

The Constitutional right to own a gun, which I agree with, shouldn’t supersede all other rights, like the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The 2008 Supreme Court decision that affirmed the right of personal gun ownership noted that this right “is not unlimited.” In other words, limits can be imposed on gun ownership without violating the Second Amendment.

I had trouble figuring out why people needed assault weapons in the first place, since these weapons were designed specifically for war. The argument that they must be available to law-abiding citizens to defend themselves against criminals with such weapons is valid. I just wonder how many times criminals have burst into homes with assault weapons, intent on shooting up a family, only to be foiled by the homeowner’s own assault weapon. I’m sure this happens quite frequently.

For all their machismo when it comes to guns, Republicans are downright cowardly in succumbing to the selfish whims of the NRA. That’s right, cowards! Not a one of them will stand up to this lobbying group whose sole mission is to sell more guns. The NRA provides millions of dollars in campaign contributions to Republican lawmakers—and not just to be generous.

For a while—just a brief while—there was a whiff of hope for some sudden sanity in the gun-control debate. First, Trump, feeling the heat of the more than 90 percent of Americans in favor of universal background checks and other modest gun-control measures, said that when he met with the NRA, they’d discuss ways to keep people on the government’s terror watch list and no-fly list from being able to buy guns.

Though this would not have stopped the Orlando killer, who was no longer on the terror watch list, it seemed like a sensible idea. But Trump had strayed again from the Republican Party position, which was no compromise whatsoever on guns. Trump had actually once favored a total ban on assault weapons, before he had become a Republican candidate for president, so who knew what he really believed?

Democratic Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut also tried to seize the moment by leading a 15-hour filibuster to see if he could shame Republican lawmakers into voting on legislation that would ban sales of guns and explosives to suspected terrorists. Republicans in the Senate had voted down such a proposal after the San Bernardino shooting, but Murphy apparently felt they might vote differently this time.

It was all for naught, of course. Republicans were not willing to consider any gun-control legislation that was not endorsed by the NRA, which endorses no gun-control legislation. Their level of stubbornness on this reminded me of their stance on the Supreme Court nominee.

“If you are too dangerous to get on a plane, you are too dangerous to buy a gun in America,” argued Clinton.

Why were Republicans so adamant that the rights of potential terrorists to buy assault weapons should supersede all other laws, rights, and practical considerations? Maybe it was the GOP, and not Obama, that was complicit with the terrorists! Why weren’t the Democrats floating this theory?

Trump continued to appear completely inner-focused and incredibly removed from the horrors in Orlando. He announced on his Facebook page that he was banning the Washington Post from further covering his campaign because he felt the paper’s coverage of him was inaccurate and the paper had “no journalistic integrity.” Why hadn’t Nixon thought of this when the Post was blowing the cover off Watergate?

Trump released a subsequent statement that said, “The Washington Post is being used by the owners of Amazon as their political lobbyist so that they don’t have to pay taxes and don’t get sued for monopolistic tendencies that have led to the destruction of department stores and the retail industry.”

Mental health experts were interviewed on cable news stations to analyze Trump’s sanity. This was all within 24 hours of the worst mass shooting in U.S. history.

“Based on the incredibly inaccurate coverage and reporting of the record-setting Trump campaign, we are hereby revoking the press credentials of the phony and dishonest Washington Post,” Trump had announced. He had pulled other media credentials; the Post was simply the latest. The notion that a public figure can neuter members of the press at his discretion basically “abolishes” the existence of a free press. This was truly incredible.

Ironically, the end of the week marked one year since a white supremacist had walked into a church in Charleston, South Carolina, and killed nine black people. That event had had nothing to do with Islam. It had nothing to do with immigration. It had to do with hate—the kind Trump was fomenting daily by segregating people into groups, labeling those groups, and disparaging everyone in those groups to explain things he didn’t understand. End immigration entirely, and incidents like Charleston will still occur. So will events like those at Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech, Columbine, and many others, including Orlando.

In a speech the day after the Orlando shooting, Clinton contrasted Trump’s response to the tragedy with Americans’ response to 9/11: “Americans from all walks of life rallied together with a sense of common purpose on September the 12th and in the days and weeks and months that followed. We had each other’s backs. We did not attack each other. We worked with each other to protect our country and rebuild our city.”

Some people said Americans had grown cold or numb or immune since 9/11. I didn’t think so. I thought the country would have mourned together if the presumptive GOP nominee for president of the United States had reacted differently instead of blaming the president and calling for his resignation.

“After all the Twitter rants and conspiracy theories we’ve been hearing recently,” Clinton said, “it’s time for a substantive discussion about how we protect our country.”

Blaming the president because some unstable guy with an assault weapon had decided to kill people was over the top. Trump’s plan for combating terror—to use the words “radical Islam” and ban Muslims and others from entering the country—obviously would not stop mass shootings like the one just witnessed.

House Speaker Paul Ryan said a religious test to determine who may enter the country was against U.S. interests and the Republican Party’s principles. “This is a war with radical Islam,” he said. “It is not a war with Islam. Muslims are our partners. The vast, vast majority of Muslims in this country and around the world are peaceful. They’re tolerant. They’re among our best allies and resources in this fight.”

So, Paul Ryan, how does your endorsement of Trump feel now? When actually asked that question, Ryan complained about the air-conditioning. “It’s hot in here,” he said.

Most Republican leaders were in hiding the week after the Orlando shooting so they wouldn’t have to comment on their presumptive presidential nominee, but Ohio Governor and former GOP presidential candidate John Kasich did a good job summarizing the dilemma that Republicans faced. “Look, I think in either political party, there’s always a tug-of-war between party loyalty, being part of the team, and your conscience,” he said. “There’s always a sense of ‘what’s my obligation to the team’ and ‘how does this affect the people I work with.’” Kasich called Trump’s response to the Orlando shooting “terrible. It’s not how you operate as a leader. To somehow insinuate that the president of the United States accepts this or condones this, it’s just outrageous.”

Actually, Trump had insinuated that the president might be complicit in this, but why split hairs?

Other Republicans rose above partisan politics in the immediate aftermath of the shooting. When Obama and Vice President Joe Biden flew to Orlando to meet with victims’ families, Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida flew with them from Washington on Air Force One. Upon landing, the president and vice president were greeted warmly by Republican Governor Rick Scott. Obama and Biden also met with police, first responders and others whose lives were thrust into chaos by the shooting, and their families. Orlando’s fire chief said the visit meant a lot to these folks.

Surprisingly, Arizona Senator John McCain joined Trump in blaming Obama for the shooting. McCain called the president “directly responsible” because he had pulled U.S. troops out of Iraq, which had given rise to the Islamic State.

This was lame for many reasons. First, Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, had started the ill-fated war in Iraq. Second, Bush had set up the timetable for troop withdrawal. Third, it is not a given that the Islamic State would not have evolved had we stayed longer. Fourth, and most important, the Islamic State was not behind the shooting in Orlando. The killer had pledged allegiance to other terrorist groups in the past, some that were in direct conflict with the Islamic State. This had been the act of a deranged individual with an assault weapon.

Of course, it was probably not coincidence that McCain happened to be among the Senate’s largest benefactors of campaign cash from the National Rifle Association. He may have been trying to deflect the discussion back toward “radical Islamic terrorism” when the public seemed to think easy access to assault weapons was more at fault. He later said that he “misspoke,” clarifying that he didn’t hold the president “personally responsible,” just thought that the attack was a result of “President Obama’s national security decisions.”

Okay, enough. The maniac in Orlando would have done this if Donald Duck had been president. This partisan blame game was beyond pathetic.

Hate and guns are a dangerous mix. They both were being promulgated by the presumptive Republican presidential nominee. The party faced a true dilemma: Would it continue to try to rally behind this guy, or would it decide to chuck the White House for another four years and try to regain some self-respect? I really had no idea which way it was going to go.