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The Motive Behind the Orlando Massacre? Whatchamacallit.

On radical Islamism, postmodernism, and the threat of moral murkiness

Liel Leibovitz
June 17, 2016
 Jim Lo Scalzo-Pool/Getty Images
President Obama receives briefing on Orlando shooting on June 14, 2016. Jim Lo Scalzo-Pool/Getty Images
 Jim Lo Scalzo-Pool/Getty Images
President Obama receives briefing on Orlando shooting on June 14, 2016. Jim Lo Scalzo-Pool/Getty Images

Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?

Not President Obama, who spoke briefly and murkily about what drove Omar Mateen to murder scores of innocents in Orlando earlier this week before speaking at length about the murderer’s tools of choice. Not former State Department official and current Princeton professor Anne-Marie Slaughter, who chastised a reporter on Twitter for giving context about ISIS and its ties to similar attacks. And certainly not the New York Times: In his new column for the Paper of Record, unimprovably named The Interpreter (a name lifted, by the way, from an outfit much more deserving of the mantle of clarity), the impeccably idiotic Max Fisher huffed at any rube simple enough to blame Sunday’s attack on “radical Islam.”

“Offering an explanation,” mused Fisher the Interpreter, “whether it is radical Islam or mental illness or homophobia or gun access—is also a way of trying to comfort ourselves by asserting false clarity over something that is ultimately unknowable: the chain of personal experiences and decisions that led this man to murder 49 people in Orlando.”

Now, it’s been a long and difficult week, and we can all use a little comic relief, so imagine the same line of argumentation applied to, say, you-know-who: “Offering an explanation, whether it is radical German nationalism or mental illness or Judeophobia or access to Panzer tanks—is also a way of trying to comfort ourselves by asserting false clarity over something that is ultimately unknowable: the chain of personal experiences and decisions that led this man to murder six million Jews in Poland, Germany, Austria, France, Italy, Greece, Holland, Norway, and elsewhere.”

Before you dismiss the paragraph above as a cheap joke or a crude attempt at obfuscation, stop and think: If you believe—like the president, like the Times—that Mateen’s motives are ultimately too complex to distill into a single coherent worldview, why should Hitler’s be any different? Wasn’t the fuehrer, too, a chain of personal experiences, ranging from a deformed micro-member to the humiliation of a stinging defeat in the Great War? And wouldn’t dismissing him as merely a Nazi mean comforting ourselves by asserting false clarity over something that is ultimately unclear?

For the benefit of our epistemologically challenged friends, then, let us make the kind of distinction you would’ve thought needless to make, between people and the ideologies they hold. About people, our illuminated interpreters are right: We are mysteries wrapped in enigmas and seasoned with idiosyncrasies. Why do I lean conservative? Why do I favor bourbon? Why am I inclined to think that it’s entirely possible that the Beach Boys, not the Beatles, is the greatest rock band of the modern era? There are many reasons, but few of them are clear and none of them congeal into a coherent thesis. Ideologies, thankfully, are much simpler creatures. They can be measured, quantified, studied, defined. Outside of the airless halls of academia, they prompt little disagreement, which is why practically every world leader from the Nile to the Thames speaks without complication of our foe as having a clearly understood identity and purpose: It is radical Islamism, and it’s here to kill us.

But what, asks our Oval Office Juliet, is in a name? What would using that particular label, radical Islamism, accomplish, pondered Obama earlier this week? “Would it make ISIL less committed to try and kill Americans? Would it bring more allies? Is there a military strategy that is served by this?” Lest anyone be tempted to raise their hands and suggest that the answer to all of the above may be yes, the former professor concluded by declaring that “calling a threat by a different name does not make it go away.”

Sure, but not calling it by the right name doesn’t help, either. That’s because not calling it by the right name means refusing to understand what it is—an ideology, not a mindset or a mood or another fragment of identity to be weighed against many others in the prism of our personalities. Call this ideology what it is, and you’ll suddenly see that the calls for complications we’ve been hearing these last few days—was Mateen driven by faith, mental illness, homophobia?—are needless. Radical Islamism already contains within it an all-consuming hatred of gays, lesbians, and transgender folks, and like every other mad ideology it tends to attract those already predisposed to madness. It is also—again, by definition, and, again, as all but the most odiously uninformed among us know—an enemy of every Muslim in Florida, France, or Fallujah who wishes to live peacefully, worship freely, and reject the creeping cult of death.

If we say all that out loud, a plan begins to materialize. It’s not as complicated as you may think. First, abandon the inane semiotic somersaults and call the devil by its proper name. Sure, radical Islamism comes in many forms, and as we’ve learned from Mateen himself, even its adherents are sometimes confused about just which specific organization is the true vessel of Allah’s wrath. But these are tactical questions, not philosophical quandaries. Whether we’re targeting al-Qaida, ISIS, or both, our goal remains the same: the crushing of a murderous ideology that condemns so many, mostly Muslim, to misery and death.

But to truly defeat radical Islamism we should do more than just strike the maniacs and their sympathizers wherever they may roam. More importantly, we should insist on living up to the values that they revile and we cherish. Instead of lowering the flag to half-mast, for example, why not order every American mission, the world over, to fly the rainbow flag up high and inform the benighted bigots who shudder at the thought of human beings being free to love whomever they want that the United States will always stand for liberty? Or, better yet, why not honor the lives of the fallen by targeting the 10 nations that still punish homosexuality with death? After all, the same ideology that left 50 dead in Orlando has caused hundreds to hang in Iran; if one drives us to advocate for tougher gun laws, mightn’t the other inspire us, at the very least, to reconsider sanctions?

Sadly, the answer is no. Sadly, we’ve no other intelligent answer except that it’s all too complicated and too postmodern. Follow that rabbit hole to its logical conclusion, and you may end up with a worldview—again, courtesy of the New York Times—that sees no fundamental difference between passing legislation that may discriminate against gays and murdering them in cold blood. Such muddle-minded moral midgetry is not what we’re fighting to preserve in this divinely blessed nation. It’s not who we are as Americans. And it’s not how we vanquish the very real force now at war with us, call it whatever you may.


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Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.