By Philip L. Tite
At 2 a.m. this past Sunday morning in the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida gunshots were heard by patrons. The nightmare that they experienced did not end until 5 a.m. when police killed Omar Mateen, the alleged shooter who had been holding hostages from the club for nearly three hours. With 50 people murdered and over 50 more injured, the nightmare has only begun for many who were there, or who personally knew people at the club, or who, like myself, read about this horrific event through various media channels on Sunday morning.
When faced with acts of such brutality, people often turn to the media – or, more often these days, social media – to make some sense of what strikes us as senseless violence. Over the past few years I have designed and taught a course on Theorizing Religion and Violence. Although we deal with various aspects of violence, a central topic is religious terrorism (largely working through the theoretical contributions by Mark Juergensmeyer, Bruce Lincoln, and William Cavanaugh among others). The first time I taught this course, the Boston Marathon Bombing occurred. That bombing became data for my student to theorize, almost as a type of grief processing. One thing I hate about this course is that whenever I go to the news I keep finding fresh data for the course. It can be depressing to teach a course where we study how and why people murder other people.
Like with Boston, the Newtown shooting, the Aurora shooting, or the San Bernardino shooting, this weekend’s Orlando shooting evokes a series of scripts. What follows is a brief reflection that originally arose from a post I made on Facebook in response to a former colleague’s concern that, by being described as a terrorist attack in the media, the gay and Latino aspects of the Orlando shooting (though certainly mentioned in news outlets) have been obscured. His comment got me wondering about how scripts function to direct our attention away from and toward certain arenas of public concern; specifically, in how such scripts tap symbolic or social capital for ideological and moral ends. Such discursive (re-)directing often obscures the complexity of such acts (and the reception of such acts by us, the viewer) in order to contain and control chaos – and thus transform such “chaos” into “events” that we can explain and process in moments of anger, grief, and shock.
As a scholar attempting to better explain the world around me – i.e., to “make sense” of the power dynamics and processes of reality-making that are at play within moments of violence (including those moments labeled “religious” violence) – I think that a more useful analytical model would be to explore what I’m calling intersectional violence (I don’t know if anyone else has used this terminology, but I hope it is useful in guiding our theorization of such acts).
We talk about intersectionality of identity in other areas of analysis, challenging the homogeneous identities that typify certain discussions of diversity or identity, especially such homogeneous treatments of identity prior to the 1980s. Today we are accustom to talking about the intersection of race, ethnicity, gender, socio-economic status, age, and sexual orientation (among other aspects of identity, including religion). But I think that this model is helpful for discussing what we could call intersectional violence. Often the “narratives” evoked for addressing moments of violence flatten identity, rendering the acts (and motives, etc.) to a singular explanatory framework. Certain narratives arise when a shooting or bombing occurs, at least within the North American context(s). Three of the most prominent ones that I’ve observed are: (1) this was a foreign terrorist attack (thus, the “Other” – often a Muslim from the Middle East – intrudes into “our” civilized society and their “barbarity” needs to be repelled), (2) this was done by a domestic terrorist (evoking images of Timothy McVeigh and the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building; here the narrative situates the attacker(s) as an internal “Other” bent on destroying the progressive and pluralist advances of “our” society due to anti-government racism); and (3) the mentally ill narrative (such as the shooters at Sandy Hook Elementary School and the Aurora theater, who are presented as pathological and thus not “us” but an aberration in society). These narratives tend to flatten the identity of the attacker/shooter, reducing the horrific event to a singular characteristic or set of narrative characterizations.
Such flattening, of course, has a functional role; i.e., it contains the violence, reaffirms social stability, and directs discussion/debate (the “now what?” question). Violence (and especially “religious” violence) is disruptive. It is often designed to be disruptive, to shatter perspectives of safety, orderliness, and (perhaps most importantly) cultural and moral superiority. Mark Juergensmeyer (in his Terror in the Mind of God [3rd ed.; Univ. of California Press, 2003]) has documented such disruptive moments in regard to two audiences: primary impact (those at the site of the attack as well as first responders; for Orlando this would include those in the club and then the police and medics who responded to the shooting) and secondary impact (those, like myself, who heard about the attack through media outlets). Sometimes members of a group committing such acts of violence are the main audience (what Juergensmeyer calls “silent terror”, when no group takes public credit for an attack but instead uses the attack to reinforce intra-group adherence to the leadership by reinforcing the ideology or worldview of the group).
Responses to violent acts, however, are also coded. But instead of functioning to disrupt, responses often are designed to reestablish order. Narratives help people to grasp the horror they are facing, to “make sense of it” and then to “effectively” respond to that horror. Narratives, therefore, contain and thus control acts of violence. Furthermore, whatever narrative is utilized will direct further debates and discussions (e.g., do we now engage in a debate over gun control, or international military action, or mental health reform, or systemic racism?). Even our political and social disagreements are bounded by a shared conceptual set of parameters (what might be called “place” by cultural geographers). In a sense, such containment offers us comfort and security. And the most effective way to offer such containment is to reduce the motives, acts, and responses to a limited, flattened set of identity components.
But such flattening also obscures the complexity and nuance of such acts. This shooting, based on what I’ve read online, seems to intersect various narrative options. Although some of this intersectional diversity is being raised in the media, often what we are seeing is less an acknowledgement of intersectionality and more a set of contending identities and identity politics from which to select for further discursive engagement.
An article in the Washington Post, for example, effectively engages various scripts no less in its very title, “Gunman in Orlando pledged allegiance to ISIS; at least 50 killed in shooting rampage at gay club” (by Hayley Tsukayama, Adam Goldman, Jerry Markon and Mark Berman) (June 12, 2016). Here we find the juxtaposition of Islamic terrorism with hate crimes against the LGBTQ community. Other aspects of identity arise in the article itself, such as the Latino-themed night at the club, domestic violence (reported by the shooter’s ex-wife, who also claims that he had not been overly religious) (perhaps evoking pathological scripts?), and the legal purchase of firearms by the shooter (with an extended discussion of the weapons). The shooter’s “motive” is left nebulous in the article, allowing various scripts to arise and contend with each other. This presentation is less a matter of intersectionality and more of an à la carte offering for narrative consumption.
Let’s look at some of the elements involved in the Orlando shooting. The shooter allegedly made a 911 call claiming allegiance to ISIS. As reported in the Post:
The gunman, identified as 29-year-old Omar Mateen, made a 911 call on Sunday identifying himself and declared allegiance to the leader of the Islamic State, according to U.S. law enforcement officials who asked not to be identified to discuss the ongoing investigation. Mateen, whose family is from Afghanistan, also cited the 2013 bombing of the Boston Marathon during that call. Officials said the call was made during the attack.
The article goes on to compare Omar Mateen with Tamerlan Tsarnaev of the Boston bombing, raising questions as to whether this fits the foreign or domestic terrorism script (note the mention of Afghanistan). In some news coverage, the Orlando shooting was praised by but not claimed by ISIS (e.g., according to CNN’s correspondents Ralph Ellis, Ashley Fantz, Faith Karimi and Eliott C. McLaughlin, “Orlando shooting: 50 killed, shooter pledged ISIS allegiance”; June 12, 2016: “There has been no claim of responsibility for the attack on jihadi forums, but ISIS sympathizers have reacted by praising the attack on pro-Islamic State forums”), whereas in the Post the Islamic State-linked Amaq News Agency is reported to have claimed Mateen’s attack as one of their operations or at least by someone that they claim as one of their own (i.e., it “was carried out by an Islamic State fighter”) (though the connection is still being investigated by federal law enforcement).
From the American side of a geopolitical/religious conflict (Cavanaugh’s Myth of Religious Violence [OUP, 2009] comes readily to mind!), the threat of international terror becomes both a mobilizing and morally justifying script. Note, for example, the comments by Hillary Clinton reported in the Globe and Mail (“50 dead in Orlando shooting; Obama calls attack ‘terrorism’” by Joanna Slater and Jana G. Pruden; June 12, 2016):
Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee, released a statement calling to redouble efforts to defend the country, including by working with allies to go after international terror groups and countering recruitment attempts. She also called to keep guns out of the hands of “terrorists and violent criminals,” and expressed solidarity with the LGBT community.
“Hate has absolutely no place in America,” she wrote.
The symbolic capital of such an attack is being “cashed in” in various ways by social actors that see potential value in this event for furthering their own ideological interests.
The location was also a gay bar with a strong Latino-friendly atmosphere. Here we find an intersection of gay rights and ethnic identity, though the article in the Post does not go far in exploring how gay rights and Latino ethnicity intersect the Islamic connection. Instead, we find here and elsewhere a strong evocation of a “hate crime” script, situating the violence within debates over gay rights and racism in America. Although the Post raises such concerns by comparing the Orlando shooting with the arrest of “a heavily-armed man” in Los Angeles in the shadow of preparation for the Pride Parade, perhaps it is the coverage by the grassroots media outlet, Remezcla, that we find a far more extensive utilization of the “hate crime” script (intersecting race and sexual orientation) in an article entitled, “Worst Mass Shooting in US History Takes Place at Orlando Gay Club on Latino-Themed Night” by Yara Simón (June 12, 2016). Simón writes:
… Pulse describes itself as “not just another gay club,” and providing a safe space for the LGBTQ Latino community is proof of that.
Amidst speculation that Mateen was motivated by Islamic extremism and renewed conversations about gun control, the media has failed to report that this attack targeted LGBTQ communities of color. A 2012 report on hate violence against the gay community found that LGBTQ people of color were 1.82 times more likely to experience physical violence. In 2012, 73.1 percent of anti-LGBTQ homicide victims were people of color – with black/African Americans accounting for 54 percent and Latinos for 15 percent, according to Colorlines.
Former Pulse dancer Marco Di’Costa told the Miami Herald that the club attracted people of all backgrounds, and that Saturday’s Latin nights often drew many Latinos.
Many in the Latino community are speaking out about the lack of attention being given to violence against LGBTQ communities of color, and at the same time, they are striking down Islamophobia.
Similarly, another account was reported, for instance by NBC News, highlighting Mateen’s homophobic attitude: “The father said his son got angry when he saw two men kissing in Miami a couple of months ago and thought that might be related to the shooting” (“Orlando Nightclub Shooting: Mass Casualties After Gunman Opens Fire in Gay Club,” by Matthew Grimson, David Wyllie and Elisha Fieldstadt; June 12, 2016). And the Globe and Mail coverage juxtaposes Clinton’s call for international defense with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s focus on the LGBTQ community:
In Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau released a statement expressing shock and sadness.
“We stand in solidarity with Orlando and the LGBTQ2 community,” the statement read. “We grieve with our friends in the United States and Florida, and offer any assistance we can provide.”
Vigils were being planned across the country.
Here the scripts collide (or conflate) in order to raise awareness of what is viewed as an underappreciated aspect of the shooting; i.e., that this was an act of homonegativity or homophobia and racism. The effort to distance or even dismiss the Islamic connection strikes me as a rhetorical attempt to (re-)direct attention back to the Latino gay community impacted by the shooting. The issues and subsequent debates would be very different than those taken by a “Muslim extremist” or “foreign terrorist” narrative. Again, the symbolic capital is being claimed for a specific set of concerns.
The shooter is also presented in various media outlets as a lone shooter. In part such a qualification offers reassurance that the crisis is over. As the Post puts it, “…officials had not found any indications of outside help or another suspect, and added that they were confident there were no additional threats.” Such a statement by law enforcement certainly goes far to contain and reestablish a sense of safety for the public. It also opens up the incident for other scripting, such as the mental illness and gun control scripts. Again, the Post offers a helpful illustration when it presents claims of domestic violence:
Mateen’s ex-wife said in an interview Sunday that he beat her repeatedly during their brief marriage, and said that Mateen, who was Muslim, was not very religious and gave no indications that he was devoted to radical Islam.
This section of the article is immediately followed by a discussion of the guns used in the shooting, quoting Orlando Police Chief John Mina and Trevor Velinor of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The handgun, AR-15 assault rifle, and extra rounds were all legally obtained. By juxtaposing accusations of domestic violence with legally acquired weapons inevitably opens the door for a debate over mental illness and gun control. Within such a narrative, Mateen fits into a “pathological script” (often the lone shooter is presented as mentally ill – in the case of Mateen, the accusation of spousal abuse reinforces such a view, as he is presented as a violent and unstable individual – and thus an aberration in society rather than a representative of a given demographic or ideological group). An even more pointed utilization of the pathological script was published by ABC News under the article entitled, “Orlando Shooter’s Ex-Wife: ‘This Was a Sick Person’” (by Carol McKinley and Sabina Ghebremedhin; June 12, 2016):
The ex-wife of Orlando shooter Omar Mateen said today she was shocked by her former husband’s attack, but she recognized something deeply wrong with him years ago.
“He would be perfectly normal and happy, joking, laughing one minute — the next minute his temper… his body would just [go] totally the opposite,” Sitora Yusufiy, 27, told ABC News. “Anger, emotionally violent and that later evolved into abuse, to beating.
“After being abused and after trying to do that and see the good in him, I can honestly say this is a sick person. This was a sick person that was really confused and went crazy,” she said.
Pathological scripts are useful. They allow us to create distance between social actors who commit horrific acts of violence from “the rest of us”. Social stability is reaffirmed. Mateen and others like him are not the norm (most people are not “crazy”) and therefore our sense of safety is reaffirmed (where the secondary impact of such an incident shatters any sense of safety; cf. Juergenmeyer, Terror in the Mind of God, 120-21, 123, and esp.132). Acts of violence are often empowering for those doing or affirming such violence and disempowering for those targeted by that violence (either through primary or secondary impact) (see, again, Juergensmeyer, especially his discussion of performative violence and “warrior’s power”; chapters 7 and 11). By presenting Mateen as mentally ill, the sense of disempowerment through chaos is reversed or at least countered. Mateen was not “us” and he’s not typical of the people we walk past on the street each day. We can continue, therefore, to live our lives in the midst of such horror. Symbolic capital is again being directed toward reestablishing social stability.
A further “counter-script” that I’ve seen arise in a tweet by Lauren Chief Elk. I actually ran across this tweet on a colleague’s Facebook page, who added the comment, “Only certain pasts count as legitimate….” Here is the tweet:
By evoking the Wounded Knee Massacre, where about 300 Lakota natives were killed by American troops in South Dakota on December 29, 1890, and thereby redacting the Associated Press statement, Lauren Chief Elk (re-)directs an emerging gun control debate toward other, historical and colonial conflicts that have recently gained increased public attention in North America (e.g., the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Report).
Here the symbolic capital of the Orlando shooting allows us to raise questions over whose history has legitimacy, what legacy has colonialism given (even in a postcolonial era, or perhaps due to a postcolonial era) for the further empowerment of those benefiting from colonial domination and genocide. What is countered in this particular counter-script is not the motivation of the Orlando shooter, but rather the discursive location of that shooting within broader American identity politics and memory. This is an important critique, as it highlights for us how we use trajectories and genealogies to shape various violent “happenings” into “events” that fit our own need for significance, understanding, and social stability. When we analyze how a violent incident is located (e.g., set alongside other civilian mass shootings, hate crimes, international terrorist attacks, wars between nations and empires, etc.) we may gain insights into the values that are being attached to that event through narrative association. Furthermore, we gain a glimpse into what is obscured by such acts of location. The “place” (to evoke cultural geography once again) where we locate such events is important for seeing the places not being created or even being dismantled in the process. Who gains and who loses in such discursive moves? And when we look at Lauren Chief Elk’s tweet, we can ask what new types of containment are being promoted over against other acts of containment?
Each of these scripts (and likely any others that we may discern) may convey important facts. I’m not contesting the factuality of these narratives. Rather, what I am suggesting is that we could engage in a more fruitful analysis of the violence that erupted in Orlando (and elsewhere), thereby giving us greater insights into the power dynamics at play not only by such people as Omar Mateen, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, Adam Lanza, James Eagan Holmes, Syed Rizwan Farook, and Tashfeen Malik (i.e., as a way to explain the acts of violence), but also within the responses to such violence by media outlets, social media exchanges, and political and religious figures (as part of the secondary impact and counters to secondary impact). Intersectionality may offer an important key to such analysis.
Intersectionality is one of the most significant contributions that feminist theory has made to the social sciences over the past thirty years. Leslie McCall offers a succinct definition of intersectionality: “… the relationships among multiple dimensions and modalities of social relations and subject formations” (McCall, “The Complexity of Intersectionality,” Signs 30.3 : 1771-1800, see 1771). Rather than reducing identity to flat surfaces, where one modality of existence is essentialized and thereby rendered normative for defining a give social actor or set of actors, intersectionality highlights the relationship and power interactions of various modalities of existence. In the 1980s and ‘90s, such insights were applied to the generic category “Woman”, as if all women could be subsumed under the same classification without considering the role of race, ethnicity, economic status, geographic location, age, and religious or other ideological outlooks. McCall offers a typology of three methodological approaches in intersectonal studies that stress complexity over simplicity:
(1) anticategorical complexity (a rejection of fixed categories because, “[s]ocial life is considered too irreducibly complex—overﬂowing with multiple and ﬂuid determinations of both subjects and structures—to make ﬁxed categories anything but simplifying social ﬁctions that produce inequalities in the process of producing differences”; p. 1773);
(2) intercategorical complexity (“requires that scholars provisionally adopt existing analytical categories to document relationships of inequality among social groups and changing conﬁgurations of inequality along multiple and conﬂicting dimensions”; p. 1773);
and (3) intracategorical complexity (“falls conceptually in the middle of the continuum between the ﬁrst approach, which rejects categories, and the third approach, which uses them strategically.… tend to focus on particular social groups at neglected points of intersection … in order to reveal the complexity of lived experience within such groups.”; pp. 1773-74).
Regardless of the typology (or a combination of these types) adopted, intersectional analysis (in my opinon) highlights the following:
■ A recognition that bounded categories obscure rather than elucidate complex social relations.
■ Social actors (individuals) and sets of social actors (groups) carry various identity markers that affect identity and social interaction.
■ Identity markers intersect and affect each other, allowing certain identities to emerge over others within a wide range of hybrid products called “the self”.
■ Social conditions affect the suppression, conflation, emergence, and modification of identity markers so as to respond to such conditions (real or imagined). Conditions are the “triggers” for identity formation and utilization.
■ Social or symbolic capital is generated and “cashed in” through alignments of identity markers. Along with such an exchange, power dynamics are always at play.
■ Constricting or expanding complexity are both acts of empowerment and/or disempowerment for various social actors within moments of interaction.
To apply this model of intersectionality to violence, including of course religious violence, would lead us to recognize and explore some of the dynamics being played out within initial reactions to the Orlando shooting. We should ask how the various scripts “fit” together and, perhaps just as important, how do these scripts contest each other? The focus of such an analysis is not just on the shooter and his motivations or the influences that brought him to commit such a horrific act. Intersectionality certainly comes into play here, but it also plays a role in our analysis of the “secondary impact” scripting and counter-scripting that we see (and even participate in) through news outlets, political statements, online social forums, and in general conversations over this shooting. We’ll be seeing intersectional moves of constriction and expanding complexity being played out in the weeks ahead. Yet in looking at the Orlando shooting as intersectional violence, we also need to recognize the hybridity of such markers. When I first read the news Sunday morning, I was struck by two major elements: Islamic “terror” and the anti-LGBTQ factor. Later, other things came to my attention, notably the Latino factor (= ethnicity) and the domestic factor (= mental health).
The questions that came to mind were: Does the affirmation by ISIS (or representatives of ISIS) inform the homonegative position (is this a specific instance of the intra-Muslim debate over gay rights; in this instance being played out through violence against the LGBTQ community)? Does the location of a dance club play a role (perhaps evoking Lincoln’s distinction of maximalist and minimalist views of religion vis-à-vis secularization and moral debates; see Lincoln, Holy Terrors [Univ. of Chicago Press, 2003], especially 3-5, 8-15)? Are domestic and foreign violence being intersected or contending? What memories are evoked and ignored within national identity and colonial legacy? Does “religion” intersect narratives of pathology or mental illness? And how might colonialism intersect these various other questions?
This kind of analysis is what I am calling “intersectional violence” (which I hope is helpful as a label for theorizing this and similar events). When I enter the classroom again to teach Theories in the Study of Religion, I will have to ask my students (and myself!) to look at how violence plays out on various levels, levels that connect, inform, conflict, and (mis-/re-)direct discourses of identity, morality, religion, and violence. I will want to push away from narrative flattening, except as one of the rhetorical moves played out by social actors.
So I think that we could more effectively make sense of this horrific shooting if we avoid narrative flattening and instead begin discussing intersectional violence.
Philip L. Tite (Ph.D. McGill University, 2005) is the editor of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion and (with James Crossley) of Postscripts, is a specialist in early Christian studies with strong interests in method & theory in the academic study of religion, and is an affiliate lecturer in the Comparative Religion Program at the University of Washington in Seattle. He also serves on the AAR Comparative Approaches to Religion and Violence steering committee and the editorial board of the Journal of Religion and Violence. He is the author of several books, including co-editor with Bryan Rennie of Religion, Terror and Violence: Religious Studies Perspectives (Routledge, 2008).