What makes Islamist terror different from other shootings?

The front page of today's Orlando Sentinel via www.orlandosentinel.com

The front page of today’s Orlando Sentinel, via orlandosentinel.com

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

A year ago this month, authorities say, Dylann Roof walked into Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and shot nine people to death during a prayer service. It was soon discovered that Roof—who faces the death penalty if he’s convicted—had espoused hateful views of African-Americans and had posed with the Confederate flag and white-supremacist memorabilia.

Early Sunday morning, Omar Mateen walked into a gay nightclub in Orlando andmurdered 50 people. While he was inside, he called 911 and pledged his allegiance to ISIS.

I don’t have to tell you where I’m going with this. Whenever there is a mass shooting in the United States, the first question the media ask is whether it was tied to Muslim extremists. Never mind that mass shootings are as American as apple pie; the Orlando massacre was the 133rd mass shooting this year, Vox reports.

Invariably, whenever there’s an Islamist angle to a multiple murder, the tragedy is portrayed as more frightening, with the government held somehow more culpable for not doing something about the foreign menace within our midst. (Note: Mateen was born in New York.)

But mass shootings are mass shootings, and terror is terror. Dylann Roof was inspired by hateful ideology just as thoroughly as Omar Mateen. Robert Lewis Dear Jr., accused of killing three people and wounding nine others in November 2015 at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, was said to be motivated by extreme anti-abortion views. A short time later, the San Bernardino shootings claimed 14 lives, and the ISIS link espoused by the perpetrators, Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, is a principal reason why that incident is far better remembered.

Needless to say, we should never forget the day in December 2012 when Adam Lanza, suffering from severe mental illness, murdered 20 young children at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.

All of which is to say that we have a problem with mass shootings in this country that goes well beyond any particular explanation for those shootings, be it Islamist extremism, racial hatred, or schizophrenia. Gun advocates claim that tougher restrictions would make no difference. But countries with strict guns laws don’t have this problem on anywhere near the same scale, the occasional horrors of Paris andNorway notwithstanding. It certainly seems like we ought to be able to do something.

With that, a few media notes.

• The Orlando Sentinel’s front page today goes not with news of the shootings but with an elegiac editorial headlined “Our Community Will Heal.” It begins: “Words cannot adequately convey the depth of the horror and grief in Central Florida in the wake of what now ranks as the worst mass shooting in American history.” An accompanying story explains the reasoning behind the unusual treatment:

We decided the front page of the Orlando Sentinel needed to reflect what we were hearing throughout Sunday about the shooting at the Pulse nightclub.

Many talked of the sadness that we were now the leaders on an infamous list of mass shootings in the United States. But also we heard a growing chorus throughout the day that this horror would not be how we are remembered.

The decision makes sense given that a print newspaper is now the last place people turn to learn about breaking news. The shootings were the biggest story in the country Sunday. Not only were Orlando residents keeping up to date via theSentinel’s website and the local TV stations, but the events got heavy attention from national media, with the cable networks broadcasting live from the scene.

Given that, the role of print is to provide some perspective and to do it in a way that holds up for more than a few hours.

Were the shootings aimed at the LGBT community? As late as 8:17 a.m. today, theWashington Post was still emphasizing that we can’t know for certain if Mateen was motivated by hatred for lesbians and gay men. “FBI Special Agent Ron Hopper said the bureau was still working to determine whether sexual orientation was a motive in the Orlando attack,” the Post reported.

It certainly seems more than likely that Mateen deliberately chose the Pulse, a gay nightclub. His father said so, though anything he has to say seems unreliable given his own bizarre activities and statements. It’s LGBT Pride month. ISIS’s homicidal homophobia has been well-documented. Politicians like Hillary Clinton are saying so, and the refusal of many Republicans to acknowledge the sexual orientation of the victims is conspicuous.

Still, it was only a week ago that the media were subjected to a vigorous finger-wagging for pointing out that Hillary Clinton had clinched the Democratic nomination for president. The LBGT community—and all of us—have suffered a terrible loss in Orlando. But it strikes me as reasonable to acknowledge that loss while at the same time admitting that we can’t be entirely certain what motivated the shooter.

Donald Trump is still a terrible person. The presumptive Republican presidential nominee’s first instinct after the Orlando shootings was to pat himself on the back so vigorously that he risked dislocating his shoulders—and to do everything he could to whip up hatred against Muslim Americans.

Jonathan Martin of the New York Times wrote that “if the Orlando massacre was a test of how willing candidates and their supporters are to pursue partisan attacks in the aftermath of horrific violence, Mr. Trump left little doubt about his willingness to push the boundaries of the country’s public discourse.”

As befits someone who has conducted much of his campaign on Twitter, Trump’s most nauseating act Sunday was to send out a self-congratulatory tweet: “Appreciate the congrats for being right on radical Islamic terrorism, I don’t want congrats, I want toughness & vigilance. We must be smart!”

Trump also called on President Obama to resign for failing to use the words “radical Islam” in his address Sunday. As New Yorker editor David Remnick wrote in a brief commentary whose every word is worth pondering:

It feels indecent on such a day to engage these comments of Trump’s at all. But their velocity, vapidity, and sheer ugliness reflect his character, his emptiness, and, most of all, the shape of the election campaign to come. Since Trump has ascended, it’s been clear that his demagogic instincts could be tested precisely by the sort of tragedy suffered in Orlando. And, when faced with the path of modesty and the path of dark opportunism, he has chosen the latter. That’s what he is about. It’s who he is.

How much attention should the media give to the shooter? This is always a dilemma for the media following a mass shooting. We are talking about a major news story, and it’s important to find out as much as we can about Omar Mateen. From his ex-wife we’ve learned that he was a disturbed individual and an abusive husband, but that he had never showed much interest in religion. That matters.

But as Zeynep Tufekci wrote in the New York Times in 2015 after two television journalists were murdered by a killer who recorded the act on video, there really is a copycat effect. She urged news organizations to think about the way they cover such events. “This doesn’t mean censoring the news or not reporting important events of obvious news value,” she wrote. “It means not providing the killers with the infamy they seek. It means somber, instead of lurid and graphic, coverage, and a focus on victims.”

We already know that Mateen mentioned the Boston Massacre bombings in his 911 call. It seems more than likely that he had studied the terrorist acts carried out by Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev very closely.

I’m not sure how to handle these questions. When something like the Orlando shootings takes place, I want to know everything I can—including the life story and motivations of the shooter.

Maybe the best solution is to let the story play out for a few days. After that, if there’s nothing new to say, let Mateen’s name be forgotten.