“As long as war is regarded as wicked, it will always have its fascination. When it is looked upon as vulgar, it will cease to be popular.” ~ a hella-queer Irish dude
I hate to admit it, but tragedies like the recent Orlando shooting no longer shock me. For me, this last attack felt less like a sharp sting, and more like a dull, slow-acting, all-too-familiar hurt. As a hella-queer person of color myself, I feel like I should've been taken aback by a mass shooting at a gay nightclub on Latin Night, but my reaction was more of a:
“oh. this shit again.”
This most recent event is the All-American Triple Whammy: a terrorist attack, a mass shooting, and a hate crime, all rolled into one.
Today, I'm just gonna focus on that first third. Or rather, how we – the public, the politicians, the press – have been reacting to that first third: terrorism. And how our reactions, even if a completely understandable response to grief, might be making things worse.
Disclaimer up front: these are just my personal reflections. My own struggle to make sense of the senseless. Writing is how I process grief. This does not reflect the opinions of my colleagues at PBS Frontline, blah blah blah blah. Anyway, this question:
“Are We Doing The Terrorists' Job For Them?”
Kind of a pissy title, but I am in a pissy mood. Now, when I say "we", I mean we – myself, my friends, my colleagues, people I respect in journalism and activism and politics. All of us, are we accidentally helping the terrorists?
Consider this recent documentary by PBS Frontline.
First off, it's a pretty great documentary! It investigates the mistakes of both the Bush and Obama administration, that indirectly led to the rise of ISIS. One such mistake was not killing Zarqawi (the founder of the group that'd later become ISIS), and instead, legitimizing and elevating him. Bush's Secretary of State hyped up Zarqawi as the dangerous link between al-Qaeda and Iraq. He wasn't. In fact, Zarqawi was at first rejected by Osama Bin Laden, but his name being spoken at the United Nations turned him from a nobody, to a terrorist superstar.
As a former CIA analyst said in an interview with FRONTLINE, “I can’t even imagine what that did for Zarqawi’s ego.”
Back to that Orlando shooter.
We've been legitimizing and elevating that asshole.
Now that the facts are rolling out, let's put That Asshole in context. (I will not use his name) He's alleged ties to ISIS, al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, al-Nusra Front, the Boston Bombers, and whoever else came to his mind. (Note that al-Qaeda has disavowed ISIS, and al-Nusra Front is fighting ISIS. This Asshole clearly didn't even know who or what he was killing for.) The FBI had investigated That Asshole twice before, both times finding no ties. Even now they've still found zero ties. He's a textbook-case "lone wolf", and by the way, lone wolves only account for 1.8% of terrorist incidents.
And yet, ISIS has "claimed" credit for this attack. Even now, as I look at the news, it seems we've only gone from saying the Orlando shooter was ISIS-affiliated to "ISIS-inspired", radicalized by watching beheading videos or something. Honestly, that's like saying Charles Manson was Beatles-inspired or Mark David Chapman was Salinger-inspired.
“Nobody watches YouTube or reads Inspire [an al-Qaeda magazine] and becomes a terrorist. It's absurd to think so”, said John Horgan, a guy who's personally interviewed 150+ terrorists, including members from the Irish Republican Army, al-Qaeda, the Taliban, neo-Nazi groups, and others. If there's ever anyone who knows his shit, this is a guy who knows his shit.
Worst of all, this isn't the first time ISIS has claimed credit for – or rather, we've given them credit for – an attack they didn't do. (see: San Bernardino) That is to say:
We've been legitimizing and elevating ISIS.
My speculation: ISIS has lost many of its core territories, they have zero allies, even other jihadist groups want them gone... so to maintain their failing "brand", ISIS is opportunistically claiming attacks they had nothing to do with.
And we're helping them.
Remember that PBS Frontline documentary? As much as I liked it, the ending kinda cheeses me off. The narrator says something like "even though ISIS has lost lots of territory, they're still wreaking havoc worldwide" while it plays over black & white photos of Brussels, Paris, and San Bernardino.
No. They're losing. These foreign attacks are happening because they're losing. They're wild scrambles to maintain their brand.
Terrorism is almost entirely psychological warfare. And every time we reinforce ISIS's message that they're big and scary, we're spreading their propaganda for them – which helps them recruit more fighters, boost their morale, and just making the rest of us feel unnecessarily miserable.
The actual number of lives taken by terrorists is ridiculously low. Jihadists have killed 94 Americans in the last fifteen years since 9/11 – for comparison, 110 Americans have been killed by lightning in the last five years. Even in Syria, where ISIS has caused the most direct damage, they're responsible for "just over 5 percent of the [civil war's] civilian deaths." (The rest are mostly killed by Assad)
This is NOT to minimize the hurt and grief and damage Those Assholes have caused. What I'm saying is, despite how much ISIS wants us to think they're an existential threat to us, they're fucking not, because we're stronger and more resilient than that.
Let's talk about being "resilient".
If terrorism is psychological warfare, maybe we need to stock up on our psychological defenses. Instead of elevating ISIS and That Asshole with fear and panic, we – the public, the politicians, the press – could respond by showing why terror will not work: coz of how goddamn resilient we are.
On the day of the shooting, hundreds of people lined up to donate blood. As of writing, Equality Florida has raised $4.5 million on GoFundMe, a record-breaking amount for the crowdfunding site. And LGBTQ & Muslim communities around the country are holding vigils, tightening community bonds in the face of tragedy, pulling together and pulling through.
As John Oliver put it, “that terrorist dipshit is vastly outnumbered”.
Lone wolves are like lightning strikes. One – they're horrifying when they do hit, but they're still exceedingly rare. Don't Panic, as they say. Two – despite what politicians say, we can never predict them, (remember, That Asshole was deemed harmless by the FBI twice) but we can still come up with ways to minimize their damage, and recover from the harm they do.
And remember, despite this, it's still a lot safer for queers like me to be alive today than just 100 years ago. (actually, this is true for everybody – violence has been declining in every category for millennia) I'm still mourning over this bullshit, but the one thing keeping me afloat is the statistical knowledge that this is an outlier.
As cliché as it is for me to say it, It Gets Better.