We are getting all too used to this. A man (usually, but very occasionally a woman) walks into a theatre/school/office/restaurant with a weapon that has no place other than a war zone and kills dozens. Sandy Hook. Aurora. Columbine High School. San Bernardino. Now Orlando. More mass shootings in the US than there were days in the calendar last year. And yet they continue in the presence of a US public that refuses to look in the mirror and admit that it has a problem with guns.
Back to Orlando. In the immediate aftermath of what happened officials were very quick to make two interesting statements. First, they called it domestic terrorism right away. Then they said they believed the shooter may have had links to Islamic extremism. I and others wondered publicly how these claims were made in the apparent absence of information. It was clear that the police knew a lot more than they were letting on. Now that more news has come out it is obvious what they knew and when they knew it and these revelations will lead to criticism of US law enforcement in the days to come.
But first, why the immediate labeling of the shooting as “domestic terrorism”? The FBI makes a distinction between terrorist acts that occur in the US and those that occur outside the US. The distinction is not a useful one since it is not location but rather motivation that is important. Under their classification system, Islamist extremists, sovereign citizens, abortion clinic bombers, environmental extremists and neo-Nazis who commit terrorism in the US all get thrown into the same bucket. This is a fundamental error of analysis and not one that we make here in Canada.
More importantly it rapidly became clear why they settled on the attack as one of Islamic extremism. The perpetrator, Omar Mateen, had been investigated by the FBI in 2013 and 2014 because of statements he had made to co-workers about support for an American IS suicide bomber. The Bureau ended its investigation when it determined that Mr. Mateen did not represent a threat. Obviously they were wrong. They knew a lot about this guy so why wasn’t he being watched?
Those who have read my writings know that I am not given to crticising law enforcement and security intelligence services and I will not do so here. But I do believe that had this individual come onto the Canadian radar, more specifically the CSIS one, the investigation would not have been dropped so readily for reasons I will outline below. That being said, there is no guarantee that a similar attack here would have been averted even if the person was known to CSIS. But I am confident that we would have been in a position to detect further worrisome behaviour and the purchase of a firearm.
We do things differently in Canada. CSIS is a pure intelligence agency and not one that cares about evidence or arrest: the FBI is a hybrid intelligence-law enforcement agency where, I have been told, getting the “collar” (i.e. arrest) is the goal. We are able under our legislation to have CSIS investigate individuals and groups that are suspected of posing a threat to our security and so CSIS can get at things at an earlier stage than law enforcement. It is because of this crucial difference (reasonable grounds to suspect vs reasonable grounds to believe) that terrorists have been identified in Canada in time to allow law enforcement to take over and make their case solid. And perhaps most importantly we don’t view freedom of speech as the same sacrosanct institution as our US neighbours, and that is a very good thing.
The US will tell you that it is ok to support IS and Al Qaeda and killing homosexuals and abortion providers as long as you don’t do anything about it. This is insane. Free speech is never absolute, it comes with responsibility. I recall a scene from the 1991 film The Fisher King where a radio shock jock cajoles a caller to kill yuppies: the caller later commits a massacre in a Manhattan restaurant. Yes, the killer pulled the trigger but the radio host urged him to do so: is the latter blameless because he was practicing the First Amendment? I think not. Freedom of speech is part of our Charter of Rights in Canada but it is not limitless.
Given what Mr. Mateen said and believed in it is hard to determine why he was not still on the radar. He openly engaged in what US scholar Reid Meloy and others call “leakage” – the betrayal of their intent to act. According to Mr. Mateen’s father, his son was disgusted at seeing two men kiss in Florida: the targeting of a gay bar was not a coincidence (recall that ISIS throws homosexuals off buildings in Iraq). True, many others engage in disgusting homophobic language, especially some fundamentalist Christian groups, but when this is added to what was known about Omar Mateen alarm bells should have been going on.
Finally, what do we call this attack? IS-directed? IS-inspired (Mr. Pateen pledged allegiance to IS before he went to the bar)? Lone actor? Does it matter? To the victims and their families no. To the FBI and others, yes since any hint of foreign involvement beyond inspiration takes this into a whole new direction.
Sadly, our US friends will see many more mass shootings. A few will involve Islamist extremists but the vast, vast majority will not. More people will die horribly and the debate on gun control will go nowhere.
My thoughts and prayers to the families of the victims.