Omar Mateen and the Clash of American Dreams

Bennett Voyles writes on global trends. He was formerly with The Economist Intelligence Unit
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The Orlando killer may have pledged his allegiance to ISIS but there is more to his hatred and violence

ON 12 JUNE, a little after 2 am, 29-year-old Omar Mateen walked into Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, and started shooting. The son of Afghan immigrants, Mateen paused at around 2.30 to call 911 and tell the dispatcher he was a follower of ISIS. Over the next three hours, the off-duty security guard killed 49 people and wounded 53 others. At 5 am, police broke through a wall, and as he tried to run out, they shot him down.

Usually, such an insane act is quickly given a tidy meaning. Politicians and editorial writers will interpret it as a terror incident or a hate crime (a curious distinction, if you think about it), an indictment of our gun laws, or some kind of warning about the country’s cultural fissures—in this case, between alienated Muslims and a secular society.

The Pulse massacre, the worst gun rampage in US history, was all those things and more of course, but I think a more useful way to think about it is to think of it as a kind of skirmish along an increasingly tense and militarised border—not a border between countries, as Orlando is a metro area of two million, located in central Florida, and not a border between races, although like most American cities, it’s very multi-ethnic, but between two competing American dreams.

The still-dominant dream is an optimistic can-do narrative about a world that’s getting a little better, freer, and more prosperous all the time. It’s the sort of place where a man can parlay a cheeky cartoon mouse into a massive entertainment empire, and even transform what one architectural critic called ‘a blank slate roughly twice the size of Manhattan’ into one of the world’s most popular resorts. It’s a spirit that believes, as Walt Disney did, that “All our dreams can come true, if we have the courage to pursue them.” In this dream, hard work, imagination, and guts are rewarded. If you study hard at a place like the University of Central Florida in Orlando, the country’s second-largest university, you can learn a profession, get married, start a family, and buy a home. It’s a world of limitless possibility, where a Black man and soon maybe a woman can grow up to be president; where every citizen has civil rights. Today, this even includes a group of people who two generations ago had to lead furtive lives, who are allowed now to dance and socialise openly and legally—and if they meet someone special, even get married.

But there’s a darker dream, a nightmare really, that sees a world of limited opportunity led by a misguided elite that seems hell- bent on debasing the currency and morality and destroying not just the country but the Christian West to economic and cultural annihilation. As Donald Trump said on Fox News Monday morning, the government is led by a man who is “either not tough, not smart, or he’s got something else in mind.”

To an extent, these dreams break down between races: Hispanics and African Americans are much more optimistic than Whites about the future right now, despite the fact that on average they still earn less money, don’t live as long, and suffer a greater degree of job and legal discrimination. Less than half of White respondents in an Atlantic magazine survey conducted last fall said they thought America’s best days were ahead of it, but 80 per cent of African Americans said better days are still ahead. Hispanics and Asian-Americans are also more optimistic than Whites about the future, and everyone is more convinced that hard work makes more difference than personal circumstance.

Some of that White frustration has arguably been expressed in the current presidential election, through votes for Bernie Sanders on the Left and Trump on the Right. But more extreme expressions have grown in popularity too: paramilitary militias, such as the group that occupied a federal wildlife reserve in eastern Oregon earlier this year; or the growing subculture of ‘doom preppers’— survivalists who build bunkers and stock food, weapons, and gold, preparing for a total societal breakdown. Doom preppers come in a lot of stripes—from radical ecologists convinced that global warming will doom us all, to White supremacists angry that their country isn’t as White as it was. But not all that gloom is White: I would guess it takes just a few mental modifications, like snapping a magazine into an AR-15, you would end up with home-grown Mujahideen.

In Orlando, Exhibit A for the sunnier side of the street is the whole unlikely story of how a small town (which may or may not have been named for Orlando Rees, an early settler and slave- holding plantation owner, or for the goofy romantic lead in As You Like It) grew first into a citrus capital in the late 19th century and later after Walt Disney decided to build his second theme park there in the 1960s, into an extraordinarily popular resort now visited by more than 66 million people a year, more than the entire population of France.

But the darker American dream is also strong in Orlando. In the suburbs of the City Beautiful, as Orlando calls itself, sits the ranch house of George Zimmerman, the vigilante who killed Trayvon Martin in 2012. He lived in a gated community called The Retreat at Twin Lakes in Sanford, where he shot a 17-year- old African-American boy walking home armed with an iced tea and a bag of Skittels. Police didn’t arrest Zimmerman for the crime, arguing that there was no evidence to refute his claim of self-defence and that Florida’s ‘stand your ground’ law prevented officials from arresting or charging him. Even after a national media frenzy, he was finally charged but acquitted of second- degree murder and manslaughter in 2013.

Like Mateen, Zimmerman is also the son of an immigrant— in his case, his mother was from Peru—and like Mateen, he had studied law enforcement. Mateen had stuck it out and earned a two-year associate’s degree at Indian River State College and had hoped at one point to become a policeman. Zimmermann was working as an insurance investigator at the time of the Martin killing but had hoped to become a judge.

More and more in America, these two dreams meet at a gate. That’s true of any big city in the US, but it may be especially true in Orlando, with its many turnstiles and gated communities. As Paul Simon, a close observer of the zeitgeist since the 60s, recently sang, ‘Wristband, my man, you’ve got to have a wristband. If you don’t have a wristband, my man, you don’t get through the door.’

On the one side, you have a neighbourhood like the one where Pulse is located—a parking lot, a few palm trees, a Dunkin’ Donuts, and a body shop that specialises in installing tinted windows. On the other, some kind of fantasy landscape, acres of flowers, trees, and carefully trimmed hedges, where everything is pretty and somehow reassuring. And in between, there is often a man in a uniform, who looks almost but not quite like a cop. Mateen was a security guard who manned one of those checkpoints, at PGA Village in Port St Lucie, two hours south of Orlando, a golf course and gated community. The job evidently suited him—he had kept it for years. He worked for G4S, a major international security company, the same company that provides security for US military bases in Asia.

The still-dominant dream is an optimistic can-do narrative about a world that’s getting freer and more prosperous

But keeping out everybody who doesn’t belong can’t really be done with just a gate. That’s perhaps why the gun is so important to America’s darker dreams. It’s a device with magical properties in the culture, a bit like the interactive wands they hand out at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Orlando.

Zimmerman just needed a handgun to accomplish his goal, but Mateen had grander plans. He wanted an assault rifle, like many gun shoppers. Nearly 20 per cent of the US gun market is made up of assault rifles these days, and some analysts estimate that there are 3.5 million assault rifles in circulation in the US.

Mateen chose a semi-automatic Glock handgun and an AR-15, which is basically an M16, the rifle issued to US GIs in Vietnam, a very durable and adaptable gun that’s not great for target shooting or for hunting unless you’ve got terrible aim but perfect for killing a lot of people in a short period of time. It’s the weapon of choice for mass killers.

The purchase was no problem, even though the FBI had interviewed him twice about incendiary comments he had made or the extent of his relationship with Moner Mohammad Abu Salha, a neighbour and the first American suicide bomber, who killed himself and several Syrian troops in 2012. Nor did it matter that he was actually on the 700,000 name terrorism watch list: like more than 2,000 other Americans on that list, Mateen was able to buy the gun he wanted. The National Rifle Association’s lobbying has made sure that his constitutional right to bear arms was not infringed upon.

The NRA argues that people need to defend themselves because it’s a dangerous country. And they’re right: according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 33,636 people died in firearms- related deaths in 2015, roughly 200 more than died in motor vehicle accidents. Only 11 countries in the world, mostly Latin American, have more firearms-related deaths per capita than the US, about 10.54 per 100,000, compared to 7.64 in Mexico, 2.83 in France, and 0.28 in India, according to statistics collected by Wikipedia.

It helped too that he also knew how to use it. He’d been trained to shoot for his job. But even if he hadn’t, there were plenty of other options. For instance, he might have gone to Machine Gun America, a firing range theme park five minutes from Walt Disney World. It’s not quite as fun as the Congo River mini-golf, according to Trip Advisor, but it’s better than the Old Town Sling and Vomatron. One June 2016 visitor had this to say:

The wife and I were on honeymoon in Florida and doing all the Disney parks. Spotted this place on the way to Disney and really wanted to give it a go!

‘I went for the special ops package firing a glock pistol, a shotgun, an mp5 and an m4.

‘The staff there were extremely friendly, very professional and made sure we had a fun and interesting experience. Tony took my booking on the phone, greeted us when we arrived and got us signed up. Nealon was our safety officer and took us through everything we needed to know and even convinced the wife to have a go on the ak47!’’

In the slow times at work, he might have played a video game—a big industry in Orlando. A handheld version of Golden Eye, a first person shooter James Bond video game was designed here, and some episodes of the Call of Duty franchise. Or he might have found a job with some people who heed a real Call of Duty—Team Orlando, as the multiple military units and 100 companies in the Pentagon’s multi-billion dollar modelling, simulation, and training industrial cluster brand themselves. They train soldiers all over the world, on how to fly, drive, or use almost every kind of equipment.

I hope that the dream of opportunity will be more attractive in the end than this darker dream of control and destruction, but the settler and the righteous gunman have an equally strong hold on the American psyche. Hillary Clinton is firmly in that up-by-the bootstraps tradition. Donald Trump, on the other hand, clearly appeals to this darker dream of violence as a cathartic and somehow cleansing force.

In the end, I suspect Mateen’s problem didn’t have much to do with the fact that he was Muslim or that his parents are from Afghanistan. The real problem was that he was so convinced of the justice of his cause, so convinced that violence was the way to solve it, and that he had the right to mete out that justice himself. In other words, that he was just one more crazy, angry American.