Last week’s terrorist attack against patrons of the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, which claimed the lives of 49 people, has me scratching my head. Although coming to terms with such a tragedy is difficult enough, the most puzzling aspect is that it was completely meaningless. There appears to be a trend by fundamentalist groups to engage in utterly futile attacks of terror that express nothing of socially relevant substance.
Terrorist attacks have many definitions, but the most common, most accepted in academic circles can be summed up as this: attacks performed by non-state actors against a civilian population with the explicit goal of changing a social or political policy. In other words, terrorists attack because murdering civilians—especially in democratic societies—helps these groups achieve their social and political goals.
With this definition in mind, what exactly was Omar Mateen’s goal? What did he hope to change in the American social or political landscape? Was he merely trying to kill gay people? If so his act was of trivial consequence to the LGBT population at large. ~4 to 5% of Americans belong to this umbrella social group, which can be rounded to approximately 16 million Americans. Although this is harsh, murdering 49 out of 16 million doesn’t accomplish much.
Was he trying to compel Americans to draft laws outlawing homosexuality? Fat chance. Societies tend to liberalize, especially in wealthier and more secure countries. Convincing a liberal society that—at worst—tolerates the LGBT community to pass laws criminalizing homosexual behavior defies everything we know about how societies evolve. In societies that have enacted protections for the LGBT communities, such as anti-discrimination laws in the US, this is essentially impossible.
Was he trying to compel the US to cease its hostilities against the Islamic State? Despite media attention on his self-proclaimed allegiance to ISIS, I doubt this. Mateen appears confused about competing Jihadist organizations. During his 911 call he claimed support for ISIS on the one hand, while on the other pledged support for al Nursra, ISIS’s arch nemesis. Furthermore, he supported al Qaeda and Hezbollah. These four organizations are diametrically opposed, even—in some cases—down to which version of Islam is the correct one.
But moreover, the US is unlikely to withdraw from its missions in Iraq and Syria due to the homicidal acts of one person—a person the US, undoubtedly, views as mentally unstable. All of these things combined—plus the fact that as far as we know Mateen never made any demands that the US leave the Middle East—paint a picture of a man with no political goal. And as far as we know he never demanded the release of Jihadist prisoners. He never even called upon other Muslims to engage in similar acts. What was the political point of this attack? [[EDIT 20 June 2016: According to released excerpts of the 911 calls by the FBI, Mateen did make demands asking the US to stop bombing Iraq and Syria. He additionally stated that this was his goal.]]
Thankfully, whatever goal he might have had appears to have backfired. Although a small few evangelicals are praising the murder of innocent people at a gay nightclub, the vast majority—essentially 100%—appears to condemn this tragedy with the strongest language possible. Mateen appears to have brought together disparate social actors on an issue they never believed they’d agree upon—that anti-gay language sometimes has tragic results.
The Orlando attack at Pulse is tragic, and its tragedy is compounded by the fact that Omar Mateen murdered 49 people for absolutely no reason. Terrorism without a goal, or terrorism misplaced in a society unwilling to accept its message, is not a way terrorists want to operate. While Omar Mateen might go down in history as a homicidal mad man, we can chalk up his actions as an utterly failed act of terror.