The FBI Is Not at Fault in Orlando. We Are.

Mateen Was a Madman. We’re Mad for Allowing Killing Machines.

What sense it makes for these two mornings to exist side by side in the world where we live, should this be framed as a question, would not be answerable by philosophy or poetry or finance … . You can make sentences about a composite thing, you can’t ask it to look back at you. Sentences are strategic. They let you off.

Anne Carson, “1 = 1”

The Washington Post last week published a story reporting that the Federal Bureau of Investigation had dropped investigations of Omar Mateen before he committed his premeditated murder of 49 people at the Pulse dance club in Orlando a week ago Saturday, and that some are blaming the FBI for allowing the tragedy to happen.

The FBI is not at fault for what happened in Orlando. This mass murder happened for no other reason than that killing machines designed for warfare are available for sale to anyone who doesn’t have a criminal record. We should blame the National Rifle Association. And that means blaming ourselves.

Why is a branding guy – a “words guy” – writing about this?

Because, as a member of civic society, I can’t think of an issue more pressing in American life than the violence we’re forced to live with daily and seem constantly to be lamenting, violence due in large part to the presence of an unconscionable number of killing machines in our population. We need to leave the comfortable terrain of referring to these weapons simply as guns, which invokes the ongoing debate about gun rights, on which battlefield the loonies at the NRA seem to have pickled our collective brains and put them in their (non-holster-side) pocket.

Case in point: The shattering illogic of “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people.”

You can’t drive a nail with your fist. We need to describe assault rifles and semi-automatic weapons as what they are: tools designed by people for the purpose of killing other people, as quickly and easily—as effortlessly—as possible. Killing many people. En masse. The types of guns used by Mateen – assault rifles, semi-automatic machine-guns – need to be taken out of circulation. Only we can make that happen.

How? We need to pressure anyone we know who supports the warped interpretation of the 2nd Amendment pushed by the NRA to mean it’s okay for any heretofore law-abiding American to buy and own people-killing machines. That’s wrong under any precept of how to maintain a civil society. I challenge anyone who purports to stand behind the Constitution to successfully argue how the words of a short paragraph written in the age of muskets in the wake of a revolutionary war justify allowing law-abiding citizens to own personal weapons of mass people-killing.

We should exert that same pressure on our representatives in Congress, to change America’s gun laws. Persuading reasonable people who we know is more important, for our representatives will follow.

We should also challenge the characterization in the press and by others, most notoriously by Donald J. Trump on his Twitter feed the day after the murders, that Mateen’s action was a terrorist act, and an instance of radical Islam. Some perverse twisting of the tenets of his faith may have informed Mateen’s vision of the world and contributed to his doing what he did. But to say he was a member of a terrorist group or his actions were those of a radical Islamist bent on jihad is irresponsible.

To imply that people in this country who practice Islam, or Muslims fleeing shattered countries and seeking refuge, can be lumped into a category of identity with Omar Mateen would be laughable, if only the latter’s actions weren’t so appalling and the consequences of such rhetoric so dire.

This young man (and, sadly, doesn’t it always seem to be a young man?) latched onto his parents’ nationality, his religious upbringing, his own disenfranchisement, and possibly confusion about his sexual identity to build a life-world in which he identified with Al Qaeda, with the Taliban, with ISIS, the way kids follow a music group. He was a groupie, not a terrorist.

And an anti-groupie: He wanted to kill people who were gay and he familiarized himself with the dance club in advance. Who can argue that someone who cold-bloodedly plans and then murders 49 people at a dance club is not mentally ill? Paranoid? Dangerous? A man who, because of the availability of weapons for murdering people, is able to do so?

The FBI could have interceded. But under what law in what America do we arrest, detain, and prosecute people on suspicion of what they might do, if they’ve no record of doing anything? That’s an uncomfortable idea, and it smacks of a police state.

Even if we could define radical in a meaningful way – and it’s a word with a long history in American political culture – is no crime for someone to subscribe to radical religious or political ideas, however antithetical those ideas may be to others. It is not even a crime for someone to profess to support the Taliban’s world-view, or to state they believe in what ISIS is trying to achieve.

One commits a crime at the point where one takes an action that materially injures people or the state. Like flying to Turkey and crossing the border to take up arms with jihadists. Like sending them money so they can keep doing what they do. Like rolling barrels of gunpowder underneath the Houses of Parliament. Thoughts, words, avowals, protestations? That’s a tougher line to draw.

Omar Mateen was insane. Ascribe whatever adjective other you like: confused, disenfranchised, demoralized, a narcissist and a sociopath, lost to the point where he’d want to lash out so cruelly. The degree of psychological instability one has to reach to do such a thing, and the lack of empathy it represents, is symptomatic of mental illness.

Not a Guy Fawkes or an Emma Goldman. Not a Hyman Rosansky or a Jacob Abrams. Neither religious nor political. Calling what happened in Orlando a terrorist act is a fallback for understanding what happened. It’s shorthand. Phrases like these allow us to narrate random, senseless events to ourselves in a way that makes sense in the wake of tragedy.

It would be interesting to do a rhetorical investigation of when and how random acts of madness became routinely cloaked in the phrases, terrorist acts or radical Islam. Using them for what happened in Orlando robs the phrases of meaning as we battle the global scourge of disenfranchised, disillusioned, dangerous people who adopt rules of their own making and follow a creed of violence that should not and cannot fairly be called Islam. Such phrases also paper over the meaningful differences between groups including but not limited to the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and ISIS/ISIL, which we often too casually lump together as Islam.

Some people have a way of living with which we sharply disagree. Sometimes they are militants for a cause antithetical to us. Many are thugs and murderers, and some are cynically hiding behind religion and faith as they seek power. Some share elements of all these.

Omar Mateen was none of them. He was a lost boy who had access to a people-killing machine. A personal weapon of mass destruction. A machine we let him have, like we did Dylann Roof and Adam Lanza. That’s not the FBI’s problem to solve: it’s ours.

We can start by calling these weapons what they are. Not guns. Machines for killing people. It’s the only thing they do. Only we can stop the killing, by taking the killing machines away.

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