Opinionista Ivo Vegter 14 June 2016

Reactions to Orlando massacre make Trump look good

It is not surprising that Donald Trump’s presidential campaign would be strengthened by an Islamic State-inspired massacre in Orlando, Florida. But everyone else seems hell-bent on amplifying this effect.

In the early hours of Sunday morning, 13 June 2016, Omar Mateen, a 29-year-old American citizen of Afghan descent and Muslim faith, opened fire on a crowded gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, killing 49 people – not counting the gunman himself – and injuring another 53. That makes it the largest mass shooting in American history, and the biggest terrorist attack on American soil since 9/11.

It was to be expected that followers of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign would quickly respond with hawkish, xenophobic rhetoric. What was less expected were a series of inept statements, commentaries and actions that made Trump’s supporters look like the most rational crowd of the lot.

(Disclaimer: I do not, and never would, support Donald Trump. His policies are protectionist, xenophobic, jingoistic and antithetical to freedom. Neither, for that matter, can I support either of the Democratic candidates. Hillary Clinton is a compulsive liar and symbol of the corrupt establishment, and Bernie Sanders is an honest man but an avowed socialist. If I were American, I’d vote for Gary Johnson, the Libertarian Party’s nominee for president. At least I can agree with most of what he says.)

President Barack Obama, in his official response to the shooting, invoked the Christian God a lot – which is a little ironic, given the Christian disdain for gay lifestyles – but made not a single reference to Islamic extremism. Instead, he played politics. He called for gun control: “The shooter was apparently armed with a handgun and a powerful assault rifle. This massacre is therefore a further reminder of how easy it is for someone to get their hands on a weapon that lets them shoot people in a school, or in a house of worship, or a movie theatre, or in a nightclub. And we have to decide if that’s the kind of country we want to be. And to actively do nothing is a decision as well.”

The New York Post, a populist tabloid, said the same thing, but much more crudely, thanking the National Rifle Association for this massacre.

A lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which has long lobbied to secure basic rights for the gay community, made even stranger statements. Although the shooter was a Muslim of Afghan descent who professed allegiance to Islamic State (IS), was a registered Democrat, and had expressed anger at homosexuals before, he chose to lay the blame on the Christian right and the Republican Party. “You know what is gross – your thoughts and prayers and Islamophobia after you created this anti-queer climate.” And a bit later: “I don’t care who shooter claimed allegiance to. We don‘t have to look beyond the hateful culture right here to understand how this happened.”

Huffington Post writer and activist Mischa Heider managed to blame just about everyone except the Islamic terrorist himself.

The moderators of the /r/news sub-reddit (discussion board) on the popular discussion site reddit.com reacted by banning all comments that described the shooter as an Islamic extremist, locked discussion threads, deleted comments, and even prevented new news stories from being posted. There was so much censorship going on that reddit users flocked to one of the few sub-reddits that was not hiding the news: /r/The_Donald. At one stage, almost half of the front page stories on /r/all – which contains the most-upvoted stories on all discussion boards – were from the Donald Trump supporters’ board.

There is a boatload of irony in all this. It is true that the Christian right, which doctrinally condemns homosexuality as a sin and routinely opposes measures to grant or protect the rights of gay people, is being pretty hypocritical. However, for all its faults, and all the gay-bashing that it provokes, it cannot be accused of the sort of violence we saw in Orlando, or the violence meted out to gay people in Islamic countries across the globe.

The Donald Trump board on reddit, which is congratulating itself on being called fascist while being the only board that permits free speech, is also more than a little hypocritical. Gay rights has never been high on their agenda, and homophobia is a frequent feature on that board. Moreover, their rhetoric about not letting Muslims into the US ignores the inconvenient fact that the shooter was a US-born American citizen.

As for the ACLU lawyer, one of his colleagues in Colorado had to resign a few months ago after jokingly (or so he claims) saying that he’d have to shoot Donald Trump voters before the election. In defending the rights of marginalised and oppressed groups, which it often does very effectively, the ACLU is certainly not above crude partisan politics or even violent rhetoric.

One should probably expect more from the President of the United States, but his priority was political correctness and opportunism. Gun control has long been part of the Democratic platform, and every case of gun violence is quickly exploited – before the bodies are even cold – to push this agenda. But besides the fact that he didn’t get even close to addressing the real issues here – hatred against gays and Islamic terrorism – this case doesn’t even really support gun control.

Like most other high-profile mass shootings, it occurred in a place where carrying weapons was forbidden. There is a reason shooters target vulnerable gun-free zones like schools and nightclubs. There is less risk of someone shooting back. Many public shootings in the US are cut short or prevented by civilians carrying permitted weapons. Because their relatively low casualty count means they rarely get much news coverage, they are hard to track and don’t stay in the public consciousness. But the Crime Prevention Research Center, a non-partisan group that is not associated with lobby groups on either side of the gun control debate, has documented more than two dozen cases of public shootings being stopped by armed civilians. Another dozen are documented here. Guns, like any other weapon, can be used both offensively and defensively.

The calls for stricter gun control ignore the fact that the firearm homicide rate in the US has been on a long-term downward trend. It is lower in recent years than at any time since 1981. Only a recent rise in suicides has kept the overall firearm violence rate stable since the late 1990s.

Many news articles and commentators claim that America has the highest gun ownership rate and the highest firearm homicide rate in the civilised world, but this is cherry-picking. The US homicide rate falls below the median, and well below the average for the world, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s Global Study on Homicide 2013. If you draw correlations between homicide rates and gun ownership, you’ll actually find a negative association: countries with higher gun ownership rates tend to have lower homicide rates, according to the Crime Prevention Research Center.

There also isn’t much evidence for a sustained rise in public support for stricter gun control laws after a mass shooting. The Pew Research Centre tracked opinions for and against gun control laws over 20 years, and found that the Newtown school shooting in 2012 caused a short-lived spike in support for tighter gun control, but a stronger rise in people who want the right to carry guns to be protected. There is much support for improved background checks for prospective gun buyers, but the shooter in Orlando had been subject to several background checks as part of his employment with a private security firm. He had even been interviewed by the FBI on more than one occasion about his extremist views and links to terrorist organisations. More scrutiny on ordinary civilians is unlikely to make much difference if it couldn’t stop this guy.

Another truth is that there is little evidence that gun control makes any difference to violent crime rates. In Britain, both the overall homicide rate and the firearm homicide rate rose sharply after the country instituted a firearm ban in 1996. It had nearly doubled by 2002. The trend was only brought under control towards the end of that decade by a large increase in police numbers. In Ireland, murders have been rising steadily ever since guns were banned in the 1970s. The same is true for Jamaica, Venezuela, and – in the US – for the cities of Chicago and Washington, DC. The country cited most often as an example, Australia, is also deceptive. True, there has not been a mass shooting since it clamped down strongly on firearm ownership and spent millions on a 1996 gun buyback, but a study has shown that these policies did not change what was already a downward trend in gun violence. “[T]here is little evidence to suggest that it had any signi?cant effects on ?rearm homicides and suicides,” the study concludes.

Consider also the rather obvious observation that if your respect for the law is such that you’re prepared to commit mass murder, you probably won’t be too concerned whether or not you acquired your weapons legally. There’s much to say for the adage, “if you outlaw guns, only outlaws will have guns”.

By exploiting the Orlando shooter’s heinous crime to score political points for gun control and against the Christian right, and by politically-correct posturing that seeks to avoid implicating radical Islam, all that these commentators have achieved is to shore up the anti-immigration, anti-Islam sentiments among Donald Trump supporters. When The Donald is being hailed as the voice of reason, honesty, integrity and freedom, and even gays are jumping ship, you know you’re saying something wrong. It takes awful politics to make Donald Trump look good.

(For what it’s worth, Gary Johnson’s response was: “It is not a time to either politicise or jump to conclusions.”)

People aren’t stupid. The issues here aren’t complicated. We have a religious extremist who hated gay people and committed a terrible crime against them. This is a problem that involves homophobia and radical Islam, and the strong nexus between the two. Whatever your proposed solution, if you avoid discussing these simple facts, in favour of political correctness or pushing your partisan agenda, you’re treating your audience like fools. If your political platform doesn’t have anything meaningful to say on these issues, you have only yourself to blame if people flock to the opposition. That is how demagogues win elections. DM



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