• U.S.

Why Did They Die?

19 minute read

The madman who attacked Orlando’s Pulse nightclub picked his spot carefully. Not any bar would do, not even any gay bar. He chose a safe space he knew well, filled with youth like him. The soon-to-be-victims danced beneath pink lights on Latin night, all smiles in the pictures they sent friends. Celebrating at closing time.

The 29-year-old killer came to send a message, as all terrorists do. He murdered 49 people and declared his allegiance to a grab bag of radical Islamists as he stood in a bloody bathroom. But the United States of America has a tradition more discriminating than the pipe bomb, more powerful than the long gun. The Klansmen who killed four girls in 1963 at 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., were answered with the Civil Rights Act, which their crime helped make law. The hijackers of 9/11 brought out firefighters who raced up stairs as buildings collapsed. Charleston, S.C., responded last year to the murderous rampage of a white supremacist with a miles-long chain of brother­hood, while maimed runners on prosthetic legs returned to Boston to rekindle the spirit that bombers had tried to destroy. Unity and hope swamped fear and hate each time.

So after Orlando the resistance began, shared on Facebook and broadcast on national television: stories of friends who shielded friends from bullets, long lines of spontaneous volunteers to donate blood and rainbow colors splashed on cityscapes from Nashville to Sydney, Minneapolis to Tel Aviv. The next steps seemed easy to predict: national mourning, bipartisan shows of unity and a redoubling of resolve.

But somehow the script went sideways, and the country veered off track. It was not just that these murders struck at the tender inflammation of three long-­divisive topics: guns, God and gays. The killer attacked in a season of turmoil as voters considered an election that was fast becoming a national referendum on the country’s very identity, its commitment to pluralism and its role as a beacon in the world. The terror this time did not unite. It tore.

As with anything else these days, you could divine your own meaning from the wreckage of unsatisfying facts, and plenty of Americans did just that. For some, the worst mass shooting in U.S. history was primarily the act of a homophobic young man struggling with his own sexuality, while armed with unforgivable access to endless ammunition and a weapon of war. Others saw the latest ambush through a religious prism, a clash of civilizations that Western leaders have been too scrupulous to win. For much of the country, the choice was black and white, one or the other. “Ban the guns” and “ban the Muslims” quickly became “blame one another.”

This was a national test, more raw and dangerous than the typical bouts of outrage and recrimination. In Congress, Democrats walked out in protest when Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan called for a moment of silence. “Now do something!” an angry voice called from the room. The ensuing uproar about gun control ended only when the Speaker banged his gavel, ruling the Democrats, his governing partners, out of order. Even in Orlando, unity was elusive. When Equality Florida, a gay-rights group, organized the largest public vigil in Orlando, with nearly 10,000 people, not a single Republican statewide official attended.

Then there was the presidential arena. Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee, is either a symptom or a cause of today’s division, depending on whom you ask. But there was no mistaking his unseemly haste in congratulating himself on Twitter shortly after the attack for having “called it” when he proposed a ban on Muslims entering the country. (In fact, the killer, just like Trump, was a U.S. citizen born in Queens.) Victims were still in surgery when Trump called for President Barack Obama to resign for failing to use the words ­radical Islam in a speech.

“Look, we’re led by a man that either is not tough, not smart, or he’s got something else in mind,” Trump declared a day later, his insinuations recalling his bizarre and bogus obsession with Obama’s birth certificate in 2011. “He doesn’t get it, or he gets it better than anyone understands.” Major-­party nominees have never acted this way, at least not since the advent of television. When the Washington Post wrote that Trump had suggested Obama’s involvement in the Orlando attack, the candidate announced he was cutting off the newspaper’s credentials to cover his campaign.

In Trump’s view, the mass murder in Orlando could be pinned on an overconcern with ethnic and religious inclusion. “The current politically correct response cripples our ability to talk and to think and act clearly,” he said in a speech after the massacre. Trump reiterated his call for an immigration ban based on nationality and religion, and blamed—­without ­evidence—­American Muslim communities for failing to tell authorities about the attacks he claimed they knew about beforehand.

Trump’s theory of governance, which appears to be supported by perhaps as much as 40% of the voting public in polls, is zero sum. Pain in, pain out, preferably directed at something foreign. A crude attack demands an even cruder response. Targeting the families of terrorists. Torture “worse than” water­boarding. If the Orlando killer poked at our sore spots, Trump applies a searing heat. And it has been working. He grabbed the Republican nomination while falsely accusing New Jersey Muslims of cheering on rooftops after the 9/11 attacks, and his support spiked after the terrorist massacres in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif.

A furious Obama had heard enough. Flanked conspicuously by his national-­security team at the White House, he charged Trump with threatening the very greatness of the country. “Where does this stop?” Obama demanded. “The Orlando killer, one of the San Bernardino killers, the Fort Hood ­killer—they were all U.S. citizens. Are we going to start treating all Muslim Americans differently? Are we going to start subjecting them to special surveillance? Are we going to start discriminating against them because of their faith?”

It’s too soon to tell. But all of those options are now squarely on the table. They have been pushed by fear and frustration and a billionaire celebrity candidate from the fringes of debate to the central choice of the general election. Score another point for the grim genius of the modern jihadi strategists. On 9/11, they turned our airplanes into their bombs, and our News Feeds into propaganda. In Iraq, they leveraged the smug overconfidence of our leaders into a classic insurgency. At Fort Hood, in San Bernardino and now in Orlando, they have weaponized our most unstable citizenry. They have turned our worst instincts inward. It is likely to happen again. All we control is our response.

Consider the sad state of this terrorist and the impalpable challenge he presents. Omar Mateen was not a formidable person, not a foreign fighter and hardly an intellect. He had a fitful career, dropping out of criminal-­justice school and working as a salesclerk, prison guard and security officer. He had a long record of sympathy for radical jihad. For this new way of war, he made a perfect recruit, if you could call him that. Federal officials say they have no evidence he ever received direct orders or training from overseas. In fact, there were signs that he didn’t fully understand the cause he claimed to support.

When he paused his massacre on the morning of June 12 to call 911, he pledged allegiance to Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. But he also expressed support for another Florida man he had known who had died in Syria as a suicide bomber for the Nusra Front, a rival of the Islamic State. This was a surface radicalism, more against the West than for any explainable alternative.

He had previously caught the attention of the FBI after spouting similar contradictions in 2013. Mateen told co-workers at a courthouse security job that his family had ties to the Sunni group al-Qaeda and that he belonged to the Shi‘ite group Hizballah, its sworn enemy. “He admitted making the statements that his co-workers reported, but explained that he did it in anger,” says FBI Director James Comey, “because he thought his co-workers were discriminating against him and teasing him because he was Muslim.”

Social victimization was far from his only problem. Four years earlier, the parents of his first wife, Sitora Yusufiy, had flown to Florida and rescued her from his arms, she says. She says he was mentally unstable, deeply disturbed and traumatized. “I don’t know how to describe someone who is laughing one minute and then the next his fists are clenched,” she tells TIME. Once in their four-month marriage she fell asleep on the floor while watching TV, and he started beating her as she slept. He yanked the pillow out from under her, pulled her by her hair and then choked her. Hours later, when she asked him what had happened, he claimed he was angry that she hadn’t finished the laundry. Later, he revealed that he’d had a fight with his father. “Omar was always trying to impress him and be the perfect son,” she says.

That father, Seddique Mateen, rushed to the cameras after his son’s bloodbath, neatly dressed in his best suit, holding multiple press availabilities day after day. He said he was horrified by what Omar had done, and forcefully condemned his actions. “This has nothing to do with religion,” he told NBC News. Instead he suggested that his son was probably angered by gay men after seeing two men kissing in Miami a few weeks earlier.

But Seddique, who lives in Port St. Lucie, Fla., is a compromised character witness. Seddique, who says he has been a citizen since the 1980s, has a hobby of making sometimes delusional YouTube videos that he hopes are watched in Afghanistan. In some, he criticizes the Taliban, and in others he credits them for ­bringing Pashtuns ­together, slamming their ­division by the Afghanistan-­Pakistan border. Occasionally he has dressed in green camouflage, an outfit he says he bought for $100 for a Halloween costume. Once he declared he was the rightful President of the country, instructing all Afghan government employees to obey his orders. “We want to find a hero to take the turban off Ashraf Ghani and slap him a few times very hard,” he once said, speaking about the country’s actual President.

Just hours after the attack, Seddique posted an image on his Facebook page of a green T-shirt ­imprinted with his own face and a campaign ­slogan, presumably for his next Afghan presidential campaign. “It shows our popularity,” he explained in an interview inside his home, saying a supporter had sent him the image. Others had a different interpretation. “He’s a megalomaniac, and according to all of my Pashtun contacts, he’s totally unknown and totally irrelevant,” says Barnett Rubin, a New York University professor and expert on Afghanistan.

Seddique recorded a video the day after the attack saying his son had done wrong, because humans do not need to punish gays: “God will punish those involved in homosexuality.” And there is emerging evidence that Omar may have been failing on that last point. “It definitely popped up in my head whether he was totally straight,” Yusufiy says now. “It’s just making more sense in my head from my personal experience that this was probably it.” Once she said she heard Seddique call his son gay in Farsi. The future killer laughed off his father.

But there is now little doubt that Omar lived some kind of double life. After remarrying and becoming a father, he appears to have established himself as a shadowy fixture of Central Florida’s gay scene. The Orlando Sentinel interviewed four regulars of Pulse who said they had seen Omar show up at the club multiple times before his murder spree, over a series of years, sometimes drinking heavily and alone. Another Pulse regular told the Los Angeles Times that Omar had messaged him, on and off for a year, on a gay dating app, and there was evidence that Omar frequented online chat rooms for gay men. The Palm Beach Post found a former classmate who said that they would go to gay bars together and that the killer had once propositioned him romantically. Asked about these claims, Seddique responded wearily. “Don’t ask me those questions,” he said. “My son is not gay.”

It may be months before the life of Omar Mateen is fully understood, but the ultimate details will not change his story’s vexing crux: that a disturbed outcast, clearly angry and largely powerless, had found a way to destroy far more than can ever be allowed. Yet this is the way it is. In the clinical terminology used by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper last summer, “I think our more proximate threat are the so-called lone wolves.”

There are proposals to change the rules of this game, but none will fully remove the danger. Obama has renewed his calls for bans on sales of assault rifles, like the one Mateen bought days earlier to accomplish his mayhem. He also called for Congress to ban gun sales to suspected terrorists who are placed on the federal no-fly list, a designation that does not appear to have been given to Mateen. (Trump, for his part, has pledged to discuss this issue with the National Rifle Association, which has long resisted the move.) Some at the FBI have been seeking more power to maintain investigations of suspects even if they show no early signs of criminal intent.

But others in the Justice Department, stubbornly deferential to the nation’s founding fear of expansive police powers, warn against overstepping the bureau’s primary mission of investigating crimes and arresting people who commit them. As far as we know, Mateen broke no laws before he committed mass slaughter. The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution guarantees American citizens the right not to be arrested just because someone thinks they might break the law in the future.

When Mateen first came on the FBI’s radar, agents opened a preliminary investigation, which allows them to conduct limited surveillance and searches but not to use their most aggressive tools, like foreign intelligence warrants. The bureau used the authority it had to run undercover sources against Mateen, search his “transactional records” and record his conversations, Comey says.

Preliminary investigations of terrorist suspects can run for six months to find evidence the person is a member of a terrorist group or is planning a specific terrorist attack. The agents on the case can get a six-month extension if they think there might be more to find. And if there’s an indication the suspect really is planning an attack, the probe can be converted to a full investigation.

In Mateen’s case, the FBI got one extension, then closed the case after a total of 10 months. Comey says he saw nothing in the FBI’s handling of the Mateen case that should have been done differently. “People like their freedoms,” says one former senior Administration official. “How would you like it if someone said something bad about you and the FBI took a look, didn’t turn up anything, but then decided to keep monitoring you day and night for the rest of your life?”

Some former senior officials disagree. Tim Murphy, the FBI’s retired No. 2 who worked to revise the bureau’s investigative guidelines, says the current rules discourage agents from monitoring potential terrorists over the long term. Those guidelines retained the requirement that any preliminary investigation that did not find evidence of possible criminal or national threat activity must be closed after six months. “Someone should have been monitoring his social media 24/7,” Murphy says, “but under the guidelines that is not allowed.” He says the bureau should also have been alerted when Mateen bought weapons. One former Justice Department official who served in two administrations said the FBI would likely be able to use the incident to gain greater power in the future.

The presumptive Democratic nominee for President, Hillary Clinton, has responded by trying to contrast herself with Trump, using muscular rhetoric to call for incremental shifts instead of rash transformations. Clinton promised to assemble a team from “across our government” and check off a to-do list: better law-­enforcement funding, closer work with American allies to stop money and weapons from moving around the world, tighter gun laws and more information sharing. “We are not a land of winners and losers,” she said. “This has always been a country of ‘we,’ not ‘me.’”

Trump has no interest in continuity. The premise of his campaign is that America’s experts and leaders are stupid. If elected, he says, he will “suspend immigration from areas of the world where there’s a proven history of terrorism against the United States, Europe or our allies.” Then he will study the problem and present a new policy to the country. His early rhetoric suggests his final views will paint with a broad brush. In a speech after the attack, he described Afghanistan, a country the U.S. has spent 15 years of blood and treasure to salvage, as a lost cause with a dangerous population. “According to Pew Research, 99% of the people in Afghanistan support oppressive Shari‘a law,” he said, ignoring the broad range of opinion in the same polls about what Shari‘a law means. “This could be a better, bigger, more horrible version than the legendary Trojan horse.”

Shortly after the shooting began at 2 a.m., David Ward went out to his apartment balcony across the street from the club. Patrons were streaming out in panic. Then he noticed something else. “A number of them turned back around when they realized that their friends that they came with weren’t with them,” he says.

One of those was 20-year-old Patience Carter, who was in town on a friend’s family vacation. She had come to the club with two friends. When only one made it out, they decided to go back. Soon they were trapped in the bathroom. The missing friend would be O.K., and Carter survived, with bullet wounds to both her legs. But the friend she returned with, Akyra Murray, was killed. Before she died, the 18-year-old called her parents from the bathroom. “Mom, I’ve been shot in the arm, help me, please. I’m scared. I am bleeding so bad,” Natalie Murray remembers her daughter saying. Long after the shooting stopped, the cell phones of the fallen victims continued to ring in the club, as loved ones reached out.

Other survivors described the evil calm of the killer as he systematically checked his work, executing the wounded. At one point Carter heard him ask, “Are there any black people in here?” When a man responded, Mateen said, “I don’t have a problem with black people. This is about my country. You guys suffered enough.”

Mateen killed blacks anyway, along with Mexican citizens and Puerto Ricans. Most were gay and lesbian, working in the service sector at amusement parks, Starbucks and McDonald’s. They were pharmacy technicians, accountants, travel-­company operators. Some were still going to school, scheduling auditions to jump-start careers. They were single, planning to be married, in love. They ranged in age from 18 to 50. Many of their friends and relatives emphasized to reporters how much they loved Latin night at Pulse.

The ingredients are all here for the country to behave as it has in the past. “All I want for people to take away from this situation is this is literally a war we are fighting, between love and hate,” says Aryam Guerrero, whose brother Juan Ramon Guerrero was killed with his boyfriend Christopher “Drew” ­Leinonen. “I just need everybody to love. Just give so much love.” The two men will have a joint funeral service. “If it’s not a funeral, they were going to have a wedding,” Guerrero explains.

That is how modern democracies have held together in times of trial. In exchange, they agree to embrace some risk, to endure some measure of future pain. They tinker with TSA screening procedures but don’t pull people out of line for the color of their skin or the writing in their holy book. They debate surveillance laws, not the right to speak freely. They hope that in the next assault, the damage isn’t so bad that they have to turn on one another or give up what they value. It’s an imperfect system, a vulnerable one. It depends on some measure of trust in strangers. And it can always be replaced with something else. —With reporting by David Von Drehle/­Kansas City; Massimo ­Calabresi and ­Elizabeth Dias/Washington; Melissa Chan/New York; ­Charlotte Alter and Ilene Prusher/Fort Pierce; Zeke J. Miller/­Orlando; and Philip Elliott/­Cleveland

Mass Shooting Victims in the United States

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com