By Baheya Malaty
One month ago today, the world awoke to the news that 49 people had been killed in a massacre at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub. From the outset, media coverage was filled with misinformation and racially charged speculation. On the morning of June 12, Rep. Peter King (R-NY) told CNN that the shooter, Omar Mateen, “was from Afghanistan and had weapons training.” Only hours later, it was reported that Mateen was born in the United States and received his training from his employer G4S, the world’s largest private security firm.
A month after Orlando, the media’s silences and erasures regarding its coverage of Orlando and Mateen tell quite a troubling story. They tell the story of an American terrorism discourse which operates through racialized, national, and gendered binaries, assigning terror and violence to the Brown, immigrant, Muslim body while exonerating American culture of its own militarism, violence, and terrorism. These silences tell the story of a nation which is unable to come to terms with its own violence.
Over the past ten days in particular, it seems that there has been no end to American militarism and violence. Eight days ago, our nation paused to celebrate 240 years of colonialism and genocide. A week ago in Baton Rouge, police brutally murdered Alton Sterling for no reason other than the color of his skin. A day later in St. Paul, Philando Castile was killed by police for the same reason. On Friday night in Dallas, five police officers were killed and the suspected shooter was killed by a robot bomb. In the heat of July, violence has shaken the country. And in light of this, it seems more crucial than ever to reflect on the gaps that the media didn’t fill in in Orlando, the silences which tell the true story of American militarism that we must come to terms with.
First and foremost, the characterization of this mass shooting as a terrorist attack against the United States erases the gravity of the violence against queers of color and queer immigrants, who are totally erased in the nationalist discourse. Despite the fact that Latinx folks are criminalized, deported, and incarcerated on a daily basis, violence against Latinx folks only becomes noteworthy when it can be packaged as a part of a “terrorist attack.” In the meantime, centuries of American colonial and economic violence and genocide against Latin American countries and Latinx folks are erased. What does it mean when politicians and pundits who have bolstered and supported anti-immigration laws and sentiments begin to condemn the “horrific act of terrorism” that took the lives of so many Latinx folks? Claiming the bodies of Latinx queer and trans folks after death seems like too little, too late in an age-old landscape of American violence and militarism against Latinx bodies. In reality, the massacre of queer Latinx people at Pulse represents only one event in a longer, bloodier history of US imperialism and militarism.
The media’s obsession with Mateen’s religious and national background is particularly troubling. Commentators continue to argue that Mateen’s queerphobia, transphobia, and misogyny can all be attributed to his Islam. In doing so, they not only reproduce racist notions that Islam and all Muslims are especially queerphobic and violent, but they also cleanse America’s hands of its own long history of queer and transphobia. In this binary, Muslim equals backwards and homophobic, and American equals progressive and tolerant; it is clear who is the attacker of liberal values, and who must be tasked with defending and protecting those values.
In this obsession with Mateen’s religious and national background, his far more problematic relationship to American militarism and masculinity is erased. The fact that Mateen worked for G4S, the world’s largest private security company which runs several Israeli prisons and checkpoints as well as many US prisons, cannot be pushed aside. G4S directly profits off of mass tragedies like the one at the hands of Mateen in Orlando, as such violent events increase fear and demands for more militarized security services. G4S helped to construct the violent, militarized landscape in which Mateen’s attack on Pulse is situated. What does it mean that the murderer of so many queer Latinx immigrants was harbored by an organization which profits from the deportation of undocumented Latinx folks and from the increase in security along US borders? Perhaps Mateen’s relationship to one of the major pioneers and profiteers of modern neoliberal militarism is far more significant than his relationship to Islam, of which the media made so much.
Furthermore, we cannot ignore Mateen’s dreams of becoming a police officer and his obsession with a racist police force that regularly criminalizes, kills, and imprisons Black and Brown people, immigrants, and queer and trans people. If we are searching for answers about where Mateen found his inspiration and template for the Pulse massacre, we need not look further than the examples of State violence and militarism found in the American police force, which intentionally targets Black and Brown queer/trans bodies.
When will America come to terms with its culture of violence and militarized “solutions” to many problems and issues? What will it take for us to learn that the problem isn’t fundamentalist Islamic terrorism, that perhaps Omar Mateen took all the cues he needed from an American culture of queerphobia, transphobia, racism, militarism, and violence? As long as terror and violence are assigned to what is foreign--to the Other-- society will remain trapped in our own deadly cycle of homegrown violence and militarism. We will continue to live in fear each day, knowing that violence is never that far away. We will continue to start wars, both at home and abroad, in search of an enemy that we will not find. And we will continue to collectively numb ourselves to the horrific brutality that we witness everyday in our country.
At this critical moment, we must take time to reflect on the violence which has been so normalized. Now more than ever, we must strengthen our call to demilitarize at home and abroad.
Baheya is an anti-Zionist, anti-racist, and feminist student organizer. In the summer of 2015, they co-led a project in Palestine called BINAT: Play for Peace, which was aimed at providing young refugee girls and women with access to leadership training and development as well as strategic community building and political organizing networks through soccer. On their campus, they are passionate about organizing and educating folks on the intersections of cisheteronormativity, militarism, and colonialism.