Omar Mateen, the Orlando shooter who had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, just ushered Donald Trump to the White House, Britain out of the European Union, Marine Le Pen to the French presidency and the world into a downward spiral of escalating violence.
Aged 29, Mateen is the Gavrilo Princip of the early 21st century, the young man who ripped up an old, decaying political order. Like the 19-year-old Bosnian Serb nationalist whose bullets ignited World War I, Mateen has set a spark to a time of inflammable anger.
Of course, these somber imaginings may prove to be no more than that. Mateen has not yet changed the world; he may never.
But there is no question that the largest mass shooting in U.S. history comes at a time of particular unease. In both the United States and Europe, political and economic frustrations have produced a groundswell against the status quo and an apparent readiness to make a leap in the dark. Washington and Brussels have become bywords for paralysis.
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Trump and “Brexit” represent action — any action — to shake things up. They are, to their supporters, the comeuppance smug elites deserve.
On top of this, and feeding this, Islam is in epochal crisis. Its Sunni and Shiite branches are mired in violent confrontation. Its adjustment to the modern world has proved faltering and agonized enough to produce a metastasizing strain of violent anti-Western jihadi beliefs to which Mateen — like the San Bernardino shooters — was apparently susceptible.
That he shot revelers in a gay club suggests once again that Islam and sexuality constitute a particularly combustible realm. Liberal Western sexual mores are the most troubling affront to a certain strain of Islam. The resultant confrontation incubates explosive violence.
It is 12 years since Theo van Gogh was murdered in Amsterdam by a Dutch-Moroccan Muslim jihadi for making a movie about the treatment of women in Islam; and now homosexuals at the Pulse club in Orlando, are targeted by a U.S. citizen of Afghan descent who, it seems, had also found in Islamic extremism the ideological answer to his troubles.
It is poisonous to blame all the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims for this crisis of their religion. Trump’s self-congratulatory reiteration of his call for a temporary ban on non-American Muslims entering the United States exemplifies his violence-tinged politics of division.
It is, however, also dangerous to ignore or belittle the potency of ISIS ideology, the core role it has played in recent violence from Paris to California, and the link between that ideology and the broader crisis of Islam. The favored phrase of the Obama administration in addressing this scourge — “violent extremism” — is vague to the point of evasive meaninglessness. Yes, jihadi terrorists are “violent extremists” but calling them that is like calling Nazism a reaction to German humiliation in World War I: true but wholly inadequate.
Mateen demonstrated again just how potent the mix of ISIS and National Rifle Association ideology is. America is the perfect setting for “lone wolf” ISIS followers because they have access to the weapons they need to do their worst. Despite having been investigated twice in recent years by the FBI for possible ties to terrorism, Mateen was able to walk into a Florida gun dealership recently, and acquire a “long gun” and a pistol. This, by any reasonable standard, is madness.
The AR-15 assault weapon used by Mateen was also the weapon used by the San Bernardino shooters. The former NRA president, David Keene, once described the weapons as the “gun liberals love to hate.” It is, in fact, the rifle that illustrates why lax U.S. gun laws make American lives cheap. The laws are an aberration.
President Obama described the shooting as “an act of terror and an act of hate.” He made clear his disapproval of gun laws. He called for solidarity. He said nothing about ISIS, or the way the Islamic State’s hold on territory in Syria and Iraq reinforces the charismatic potency of its ideological appeal, disseminated from that base through the internet.
He also said this: “To actively do nothing is a decision as well.”
Yes, to have actively done nothing in Syria over more than five years of war — so allowing part of the country to become an Islamic State stronghold, contributing to a massive refugee crisis in Europe, acquiescing to slaughter and displacement on a devastating scale, undermining America’s word in the world and granting open season for President Vladimir Putin of Russia to strut his stuff — amounts to the greatest foreign policy failure of the Obama administration.
It has made the world far more dangerous. I hope for the best but fear the victory of the politics of anger in America and Europe.
© 2016 New York Times