We’d like it to be like Law & Order, or Criminal Minds, or CSI. On those shows, there’s always a clear motive. The boss killed his secretary so she wouldn’t tell his wife about their affair. The husband killed his wife to collect on the insurance money before the divorce went through. Even a serial killer does what he does because of that one uncle who molested him in the basement when he was 9.
The emphasis on a single, easily digestible motive is an obvious must for TV police procedurals: There’s only so much time in each episode to unspool the crime-and-punishment plot. It’s also the way the criminal justice system works. Jurors are TV watchers, after all. They need a story that holds together, is persuasive, makes sense.
A motive feels even more urgent after an inherently inexplicable event like the massacre in Orlando. Until we know why it happened, we’re stuck in the devastation. Once we have a motive, we can stop thinking about the terrified people who waited for their deaths, crouched in toilet stalls, and about the torn-apart hearts of the parents who lost their children. We can step away from the dislocating horror, the incomprehensibility, and return instead to the familiar:
“Oh, I get it now: He was a religious extremist. That makes sense.”
“Oh, I get it now: He was a homophobe. That makes sense.”
“Oh, I get it now: He was mentally ill. That makes sense.”
A motive is an instruction set for the way forward. We can start talking, in lofty terms, about religious extremism, about violence against LGBTQ people, about inconsistencies in our healthcare system, about gun control. People who are frightened can be angry instead: “He was a Muslim? Then we’ll ban Muslims!”
Right now, the headlines are filled with speculation about motives. Hidden behind the words is the desperation of people needing to know why.
“Additional Possible Motives Emerge…”
“Everything We Know About Omar Mateen”
“Was Omar Mateen a self-hating gay man?”
“The Killer and Motive, Revealed!”
The problem is that human beings are messy, and nothing happens in a vacuum. We’ve been shaped by our parents, by our genes, by the schools we went to, the friends we’ve had, that butterfly we stepped on. We continue to be defined and redefined by innumerable internal and external forces. In the course of our lives, and in the course of each day, we contradict ourselves. We’re baffled by our own behavior, even on a small scale: “I don’t know why I wore this jacket. It hasn’t fit right since high school.” People spend years in psychoanalysis, or in church, trying to understand who they are, and why they do what they do. Understanding other people is even harder.
Yet in the face of a mass shooting, we demand that the perpetrator adhere to the Law & Order model. The rest of us may be murky, but he must be clear, or made clear after the fact. It’s especially useful, rhetorically, if the gunman has a mental illness — as with James Holmes and the Aurora shooting — which can then be used to account for his actions. But it doesn’t actually account for anything because mass shooters are, by definition, outliers. James Holmes was an outlier too: The vast majority of people with mental illnesses do not commit mass shootings.
This time, we’re really out of luck. Omar Mateen appears to have been full of more contradictions than ever the average human mess. Here are some things we think we know, because they’ve been reported in various news outlets (which doesn’t make them all true):
He pledged support to ISIS during the attack but previously expressed support for terrorist groups opposed to ISIS.
He proclaimed a hatred of gays but he cruised Pulse to pick up guys.
He was kind and helpful to people he worked with but hostile and cruel to others.
He was “bipolar,” according to his ex-wife, but had no history of mental health treatment.
He wasn’t religious but he professed admiration for groups that insisted upon rigid adherence to Islamic law.
The more information we get about Mateen, the more elusive a single motive gets. That doesn’t stop people from advancing one motive over another, however. In fact, there are so many stories competing to explain his actions according to individual filters, we now have writers debating the “narrative” of the shooting. One writer says the narrative should be about LGBTQ discrimination; another says it should be about a troubled mind. There’s a relentless determination to find a single thread rather than deal with the complexity.
We have to let that go because the more we talk about why he might have done this, the less we talk about how. The fact is, we don’t know why he went to Pulse with a gun — he’s dead now; we’ll never know — but we do know how he managed to kill so many people so quickly: with an AR-type rifle. That’s not speculation, that’s fact. We should embrace the facts that will bring us clarity.
Not all facts do. For instance, it’s a fact that he called 911 and pledged loyalty to ISIS. But we don’t know what that means. Was he thinking, “Ooh, I know what’ll really freak them out: if I say, ‘ISIS.’ Or did he realize he was going to die, get scared, and feel truly devout? You see my point: We don’t know. Any assumptions we make about that call are based on speculation.
But the fact that he had a Sig Sauer MCX is less ambiguous. Why did he buy a semiautomatic capable of holding 30 rounds designed by the military? To kill people. Did it work? Yes, it did.
And that fact leads us to a broader conversation than questioning if he was a self-hating gay man or was once diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Instead of speculating on the interior life of a single individual, we can consider the advantages and disadvantages of our nation’s laws and regulations pertaining to the purchase of firearms. Talking about Mateen is not beside the point, but it is spurious: There will always be people like Mateen and Adam Lanza and James Holmes and Seung Hi-Cho and the rest of them. There will always be people who commit violent acts before we are able to stop them. Knowing that, our best bet is to examine the circumstances that facilitated their success. At the University of Texas at Austin, it means that the tower from which Christopher Whitman shot 44 people in 1966 remains closed. More broadly, maybe it means shutting down the metaphorical tower of civilian access to military-grade semiautomatic rifles.
I don’t want to get too deep in the weeds of the debate around guns. There are already too many other people who get siloed in their causes and forget to see the larger picture. But I think if there’s any overarching narrative to any of this, it resides in the how, not why. “How” doesn’t provide a single motive that leads so satisfyingly to Law & Order‘s closing credits, but it is a better way forward.
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