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Against the backdrop of a US presidential election campaign, the killing of dozens of patrons at a gay nightclub in Florida starkly pits anti-Muslim sentiment against gun control – with fear as the common thread. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Trump, Clinton and Orlando’s Pulse nightclub massacre

A memorial gathering in Brooklyn, New York, for those killed in Orlando last weekend.
Credit: SPENCER PLATT / GETTY IMAGES / AFP

Crime scenes are static things, protected from time. At least, that’s the macabre illusion for investigators. When Orange County’s chief medical examiner entered the Pulse nightclub, the venue’s strobe lights were still flashing, its plasma televisions still streaming music videos. “What you saw was drinks that were just served. You saw bills that were about to be paid. You saw half-eaten food,” Dr Joshua Stephany told The New York Times this week. “Time just stopped.”

Against the incongruously frenetic lights was the stillness of death. Stephany’s comments recalled what a psychologist for Tasmania Police once told me about inspecting the site of the Port Arthur massacre: “There were some [victims] still sitting bolt upright in the Broad Arrow [cafe], looking surprised, as dead people often do. They were still sitting in their chairs.”

The man responsible for last weekend’s slaughter in Orlando, Florida, Omar Mateen, was driven to the gay nightclub by his wife early on Sunday morning. He had left the modest apartment he shared with her and their three-year-old son, a poky place that looked as though it had been decorated by a teenager. The bathroom had a Star Wars theme – its shower curtain and bath mat stamped with the face of Darth Vader, toothbrushes standing inside the plastic head of a stormtrooper. The fridge was covered in a collage of family photos. Mateen’s son featured in most. In another room, weights were stacked on the floor. Mateen had self-consciously sculpted his body, lifting iron and injecting steroids. Elsewhere, on a Disney-themed wall calendar, June 6 was circled, and written above it “D Day”. 

Mateen had been employed for years by G4S as a security guard. Dressed in uniform, a holstered Glock on his hip, Mateen would for a while be paid to protect the local courthouse – until the FBI notified his employers that he had been under investigation for possible terror links, and he was transferred to guard a residential golfing community. The FBI’s first investigation began in 2013, when concerned colleagues tipped off authorities after Mateen began suggesting he had links to Hezbollah and al-Qaeda. “He was an angry person, violent in nature and a bigot to almost every class of person,” a former co-worker remembered. His first wife has said that he beat her. But for the FBI, there were signs that Mateen was just a boastful poseur – the links he suggested were contradictory, Hezbollah being a Shiite group, al-Qaeda Sunni. After failing to find any evidence, the FBI closed its investigation. Mateen remained an armed guard. 

Legal weapons of war

Omar Mateen entered the Pulse nightclub in the early hours of Sunday armed with a Glock handgun and a Sig Sauer MCX semi-automatic assault rifle. Both weapons were purchased legally the week before. The gun industry describes the MCX as a hunting rifle, a misleadingly quaint description for a weapon originally designed for the United States military’s special ops. It is a powerfully efficient killing machine, or, in the glib advertising copy of its manufacturer, “The result of years of toil and sweat … proof that the dawn of a new era doesn’t happen overnight.” 

According to survivors, Mateen strode casually around the club indiscriminately shooting. Many initially mistook the popping of the assault rifle for firecrackers. Mateen would periodically enter the bathroom to wash his hands and reload, heard by patrons who had locked themselves inside toilet cubicles. “It was a fun night, a regular Saturday Latin night,” Norman Casiano told The New York Times in a videotaped interview. “It was about 1.50 and time to go. I called an Uber, and it was literally three minutes away. As I’m waiting, that’s when you heard the first gunshots. At that moment, I automatically dropped to the floor. Everyone else did the same … I thought it was a regular beef between two regular club patrons or something. We do a military crawl over to the bathroom and we hide inside the stall. 

“Inside the stall there were already about 20 people. And then 10 more came with us. The stall was so, so packed you literally had no place to personally stand by yourself. Everyone was crunched on top of each other. Just huddling and fearing for our life. As the gunshots got closer I was just praying, and hoping that this isn’t the last moments on earth for me. I tried calling 911 and it wouldn’t get through. Then I called my mum and the service is iffy in the bathroom. I couldn’t hear her, but she could hear me. Then the call dropped.” 

Not long after the failed call, the gunman entered the bathroom and began spraying the huddled mass with bullets. Casiano was hit twice in the back, and he watched as those around him were struck fatally. Not long afterwards – though the passage of time would seem to stretch interminably – police blew a hole in the side of the nightclub, and began a desperate evacuation of patrons. Earlier, Mateen had called police from the bathroom – much like the killers who stormed the Parisian concert in November – to calmly announce his rampage and pledge sympathy to al-Baghdadi, the leader of Daesh. It would be another three hours – at 5.53am – before police declared Mateen dead. 

There are many stories from survivors. It is striking how many are told in present tense – the person reliving the moment as they speak it. They each describe a profound obscenity. 

Framing the tragedy

The United States’ worst mass shooting comes amid one of the most febrile and consequential presidential elections in recent history. The slaughter has been competitively interpreted, emerging as a political Rorschach test. Parsing the significance has meant unravelling issues of Islamic terror, immigration, murderous homophobia and gun laws. Both presumptive presidential candidates have attempted to frame it – Donald Trump as proof of his prophetic powers, and the wisdom of his policy to ban Muslims from the country; Hillary Clinton as an opportunity to unite the country. 

Speaking at Saint Anselm College in New Hampshire, the Republican Trump threw away his script to address the Orlando massacre. He opened obnoxiously with a gratuitous swipe at his rival, before offering what might be considered more measured and orthodox remarks in the aftermath of something so grave. “The attack on the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, was the worst terror strike on our soil since September 11th, and the worst mass shooting in our country’s history.

“So many people – it’s just hard to believe – but just so many people dead, so many people gravely injured, so much carnage, such a disgrace. The horror is beyond description. The families of these wonderful people are totally devastated, and they will be forever. Likewise, our whole nation and indeed the whole world is devastated.

“We express our deepest sympathies to the victims, the wounded, and their families. We mourn as one people for our nation’s loss, and pledge our support to any and all who need it. I would like to ask now that we all observe a moment of silence for the victims of this attack.

“Our nation stands together in solidarity with the members of Orlando’s LGBT community. This is a very dark moment in America’s history. A radical Islamic terrorist targeted the nightclub, not only because he wanted to kill Americans, but in order to execute gay and lesbian citizens, because of their sexual orientation.” 

It was as statesmanlike as Trump was going to get, before he made self-congratulatory remarks about predicting the slaughter. Trump then warned that political correctness was gagging America’s ability to speak freely about its health, and reiterated the importance of his proposed ban on Muslims entering the US. Then he sounded an apocalyptic note: “If we don’t get tough, and if we don’t get smart, and fast, we’re not going to have our country anymore. There will be nothing, absolutely nothing, left.” 

For Hillary Clinton, the massacre reinforced the importance of gun control. It was her husband Bill Clinton who in 1994 passed the so-called Brady bill – legislation that heavily regulated the sale of semi-automatic rifles and so-called “cop killers”, the high-calibre weapons that can penetrate police body armour. But the bill had a sunset clause, expiring in 2004. It has never been renewed. 

In her speech, Clinton sketched the threat of Daesh: “Whatever we learn about this killer, his motives in the days ahead, we know already the barbarity we face from radical jihadists is profound. In the Middle East, ISIS is attempting a genocide of religious and ethnic minorities, they are slaughtering Muslims who refuse to accept their mediaeval ways, they are beheading civilians, including executing LGBT people, they are murdering Americans and Europeans, enslaving, torturing and raping women and girls ...

“The attack in Orlando makes it even more clear: we cannot contain this threat – we must defeat it. The good news is that the coalition effort in Syria and Iraq has made real gains in recent months. So we should keep the pressure on ramping up the air campaign, accelerating support for our friends fighting to take and hold ground, and pushing our partners in the region to do even more.

“We also need continued American leadership to help resolve the political conflicts that fuel ISIS recruitment efforts. But as ISIS loses actual ground in Iraq and Syria, it will seek to stage more attacks and gain stronger footholds wherever it can, from Afghanistan to Libya to Europe. The threat is metastasising.”

In stark contrast to Trump’s response – he pledged fierce commitment to the Second Amendment, the right of people to keep and bear arms, and celebrated his endorsement from the National Rifle Association – Clinton argued that one significant piece of the tragedy was the wide availability of assault rifles. “We may have our disagreements on gun safety regulations, but we should all be able to agree on a few things. If the FBI is watching you for suspected terrorist links, you shouldn’t be able to just go buy a gun with no questions asked. You shouldn’t be able to exploit loopholes and evade criminal background checks by buying online or at a gun show. And, yes, if you’re too dangerous to get on a plane, you are too dangerous to buy a gun in America.

“I know some will say that assault weapons and background checks are totally separate issues having nothing to do with terrorism. Well, in Orlando and San Bernardino, terrorists used assault weapons, the AR-15, and they used it to kill Americans. That was the same assault weapon used to kill those little children in Sandy Hook. We have to make it harder for people who should not have those weapons of war.” 

It is an incomprehensible fact of American life that last year congress denied an attempt to pass legislation that would bar gun sales to those on the FBI’s watchlist. For Republicans, the unmoving orthodoxy is that good people must arm themselves to protect against the bad. Florida senator Marco Rubio, when asked about the availability of these weapons to Mateen, said he was doubtful that restricted access would have mattered. “He could’ve bought them from the black market,” he told the BBC. “Could’ve done like Boston and used a bomb. Could’ve loaded his truck up with explosives. These terrorists are committed people. So I think we should focus less on the weapon used, and more on the motivation behind it.” This kind of murderousness can’t be contained, the senator seems to say. Which is true, but its expression can be stymied. 

In what amounted to a pincer movement, President Barack Obama made a long, impassioned speech about gun control that also served as a condemnation of Trump – even if the president refused to use his subject’s name. “We hear language that singles out immigrants and suggests entire religious communities are complicit in violence,” the president said. “Where does this stop? Are we going to start treating all Muslim-Americans differently? Are we going to start subjecting them to special surveillance? Are we going to start discriminating against them because of their faith? Do Republican officials actually agree with this? Because that’s not the America we want – it doesn’t reflect our democratic ideals. It won’t make us more safe. It will make us less safe.”

Then, in what is now a familiar subject for the president, he voiced frustration that repeated attempts to introduce gun control legislation had been rejected. “People with possible ties to terrorism, who are not allowed on a plane, should not be allowed to buy a gun. Enough talking about being tough on terrorism. Actually be tough on terrorism and stop making it as easy as possible for terrorists to buy assault weapons. Reinstate the assault weapons ban. Make it harder for terrorists to use these weapons to kill us.”

Dividing Republicans

Trump’s Muslim ban has fractured his party. It does not enjoy broad support, and has been condemned by senior leaders. But it has not quietened his enthusiasm for it. Trump’s bizarre iconoclasm is also expressed in his speeches – in their style and their substance. An orthodox wisdom – or prayer – among Republicans was that once Trump secured the nomination his impromptu and intemperate style would become sober as he sought general appeal. As he turned his eye towards the whole electorate, the logic went, he would abandon his crude and conspiratorial flourishes, the inflammatory insults and improvisations. It was desperately wishful thinking. Trump’s tone hasn’t shifted, and in a major speech in Greensboro, North Carolina, this week, on the day he turned 70, he criticised The Washington Post to great cheers and compared immigrants to snakes. He largely ignored the teleprompter.

It is such a man for whom it falls to influentially analyse the meaning of Orlando. A man who has banned a major newspaper from his campaign trail, who has said that he would have likely supported the internment of thousands of Japanese-Americans after Pearl Harbour, and now erratically and bombastically improvises speeches on foreign policy. America is mourning, and it mourns amid extraordinary confusion and rancour.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 18, 2016 as "Fear and loathing". Subscribe here.

Martin McKenzie-Murray
is The Saturday Paper’s chief correspondent.