The Narrative of Orlando: An American Fatwa?

The problem that few are emphasizing is not that the gunman is American-born, but that the zealotry and homophobia that played out in the killings is equally homegrown.
06/14/2016 09:59 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

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It took little time in the aftermath of the Orlando massacre to establish the link between the shooter, Omar Mateen, and ISIS, to which he allegedly swore allegiance. Called "The deadliest mass shooting in US history," it has quickly morphed into a story about terrorism and a confirmation of familiar fears. Afghani parentage, a foreign-sounding name, a swarthy complexion - it has all the elements we've been warned about.

But there is something profoundly unsettling about this ready-made narrative, something too convenient, a sense that not all is being said in this sequel to the long-running story of the threat posed by overseas Islamists and lone-wolf gunmen who fall under their sway.

The problem that few are emphasizing is not that the gunman is American-born, but that the zealotry and homophobia that played out in the killings is equally homegrown. You didn't need any distant Jihadists to poison Omar Mateen's mind, not when the real toxin is right here at home. The vitriol and hatred spewed by American voices and the ever-available cache of assault weapons is a combustible mix that needs no foreign hand to ignite.

One does not have to go to Waziristan to find Americans who speak of putting gays to death as a desirable and worthy act, invoking the highest of moral authority - Jesus Christ. You can find them in the pulpit, in the state house, in the city and the country. Comforting as it may be to fixate on radical clerics overseas, one need only turn on the radio, attend some churches, or listen to some elected officials to hear what comes agonizingly close to an American fatwa.

The truth is that the homeland is now rife with self-righteous and self-anointed apostles who cite the Bible as a reason to kill gays. They are the tip of the spear of a rising reactionary movement that is seeking to reverse the course of gay rights and universal enfranchisement and to return to the days when falling in love with someone of the same gender was a felony before man and an abomination before God. Here is just a partial list of those from whom Omar Mateen could have drawn moral (I shudder to use the word in this context) support in preparing for his murderous spree in Orlando:

Steven Anderson, a pastor of the Faithful Word Baptist Church in Tempe, Arizona, has proclaimed that killing gays would be pleasing to God and a way to end the scourge of AIDS. "All homos are pedophiles," he says, lashing out at gays as deserving of death. And, yes, he would be for stoning to death ministers who perform same-sex marriages.

In Colorado, Minister Kevin Swanson, has called for gays who do not repent to be put to death. For authority, he cites Leviticus 20:13 and says it imposes the death penalty on homosexuals.

In Nebraska there is Phillip Kaysar, pastor of Dominion Covenant Church in Omaha, who believes homosexuality should be a capital offense.

Pastor Robby Gallaty of the Brainerd Baptist Church in Tennessee has said that "gays must be put to death."

In Georgia, Pastor Robert Lee of the Ten Commandments Church in Milledgeville, has said the Bible teaches that "homosexuality is a death worthy crime."

In Seneca, Kansas, we have the notorious Pastor Curtis Knapp of the New Hope Baptist Church, who says "They [gays] should be put to death -that's what happened in Israel...That's why homosexuality wouldn't have grown in Israel." (Not sure where the good pastor gets his information - a number of my friends in Israel are gay and do not encounter waves of intolerance or calls for their heads.)

I would run out of space before exhausting the list of those who hold up the Ten Commandments as if it were a Kalashnikov rifle. (Among those who attempt to keep up with the growing list of homophobic hate groups is the Southern Poverty Law Institute.)

Think these ministers are just fringe lunatics ignored by one and all? Think again. Each has a following. Each regularly makes the news, both local and national, with their homophobic call to arms, spreading their dark Gospel over the airwaves, infecting the most vulnerable, the confused, the overwhelmed, the marginalized, and the mentally ill (an audience that, courtesy of the NRA, has easy access to domestic WMDs, a right safeguarded by the Congress of the United States, not some foreign power.) Swanson has his own radio show and hosted at least three former Republican presidential candidates. Kaysar was embraced by the Ron Paul campaign which hailed him as an "eminent pastor."

Each of these ministers have congregants and adherents who buy into the sermons of hate. They have neighbors and communities that are either sympathetic or have too often been silent or soft on such venomous speech. None of these purveyors of poison are reflective enough to recognize that the positions and policies they advocate are already in place in Saudi Arabia and Iran, nations they view with contempt and revulsion.

Whether their words have trickled down into the wider general population or merely reflect what is already there, does not matter. They have provided cover for those who contemplate murder. The simple fact is that their poisonous doctrines are with us across the country, and though in many places they have been gentrified, they are there nonetheless in the guise of religious freedom and protectors of the faith.

They reveal themselves in local ordinances and state laws that stigmatize gays, in evangelical halls where family values are coded to choke off any possibility of inclusion of gays and their children, in businesses that refuse to serve gays - and all this in the name of Jesus Christ - he who embraced the lepers when no one else would. Hypocrisy is too pale a word. (What kind of Scripture deletes Jesus's words about loving thy neighbor as thyself, much less condemning murder? )

Much as we might wish it, what happened in Orlando cannot be dismissed solely as the fruit of a foreign tree, the preaching of a distant mullah, or the backward rants of medieval-minded caliphates. This is home-grown bile, the natural and inevitable outgrowth of America's intolerance. The constant nod to ISIS will only further play into the divisive campaign of Donald Trump, fuel America's growing xenophobia, its hostility to Islam, and its distrust of those of Mideast descent. But what the prevailing narrative increasingly ignores is that the origins of such virulent hatreds are here, not there, that we look always outward, never inward, because we rightly fear what we would see in ourselves as a nation.

There is, these days, a popular sci-fi horror movie called "The Purge" in which, one night a year, murder and all manner of mayhem are legal, and all aggressions unleashed. The film hit the top of the box office, earned $90 million, and is now enjoying a third sequel. It is not a film I have seen nor wish to see, but I know enough of it to know that it reflects a kind of American impulse that both abhors and celebrates slaughter. What happened in Orlando was not legal but it may well have been a release of demons that have been fed as much by American extremism as by any in the Mideast.

It is too early to identify the precise origins of Omar Mateen's hostilities towards gays, but Americans should acknowledge that some of their own men of the collar and their disciples, those who translate their bigotry into laws in state legislatures and city councils, those whose businesses turn their backs on their neighbors, and all who discriminate, stigmatize, and dehumanize under cover of The Good Book, are themselves complicit in this heinous act. America is in denial. The narrative of Orlando must expand.