Roberto Rivera

There Is No Take


Roberto Rivera

The bodies at Orlando’s Pulse club were still far from room temperature when people started “explaining” what had happened. By the time I was at church on Sunday morning, there were four “alternative” “explanations” vying to control how people interpreted what happened: Radical Islam/Jihadism, including a critique of the Obama administration’s response to the threat they pose; the availability of guns; homophobia; and mental illness.

Those quotations marks in the previous paragraph are scare quotes. For starters, the four things listed are not, logically speaking, alternatives. As Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic tweeted out, the “Orlando massacre can be about Islamism, access to guns, homophobia and mental illness, all at the same time.”

More than that, they are not explanations, they are takes. They tell you much more about what the speaker (or writer) is most concerned about than they do about the underlying event. To illustrate why this is the case, allow me to add another “explanation”: the internet.

I can make a plausible case that, without the internet, the events in Orlando might not have happened. After all, the four “explanations” have been with us for a long time, including jihadist terrorism. In 1993, a group of terrorists, led by Ramzi Yousef, the nephew of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the so-called “architect” of 9/11, detonated a truck bomb below the north tower of the World Trade Center. This was followed in 1996 by Bin Laden’s fatwa declaring war on the United States, whom he called the “Far Enemy.”

But, with the exception of the first World Trade Center bombing, these attacks took place outside of the United States, and for good reason: pulling off a major attack on U.S. soil requires getting your people into the country and implementing your plan, all while avoiding detection.

While it tragically worked on 9/11, our response has made similar attacks less likely and a lot more costly. If jihadists were going to wage war on the “far enemy” on his own soil, they would have to depend on American-born Muslims already residing in the United States. Furthermore, as ISIS has done, it would be better to “settle” for “inspiring” these would-be jihadists rather than directing them. (Calling something “ISIS-inspired” is a lot like saying a movie is “inspired by real events.” In both instances, the “connections” are much more thematic that factual.)

This couldn’t be done without the internet, by which I mean the web, especially social media, and widely-available broadband access. In the aftermath of atrocities committed by what the White House has called “homegrown jihadi terrorism,” we learned that the process of “self-radicalization” almost invariably includes references to internet activity.

For instance, the Tsarnaev brothers, perpetrators of the Boston Marathon attack, watched online videos featuring Anwar al-Awlaki, the same radical cleric who inspired the perpetrator of the Fort Hood attack, Nidal Malik Hasan. Similarly, the radicalization of Syed Rizwan Farook, of San Bernardino infamy, is also said to have involved internet activity.

And it isn’t only the United States. In a 2011 paper, Brian Michael Jenkins of the Rand Corporation wrote that “many of the terrorists identified in this paper began their journey on the Internet.”

Having pointed this out, I agree with The Atlantic, from which I learned about Jenkins’ paper, that “passive consumption of [Jihadist] propaganda is not enough to transform an ordinary person into a murderer.” A lot more goes into transforming a Dzhokhar Tsarnaev from a dope-smoking and -dealing high school wrestler into a jihadi terrorist.

To put it in formal logical terms, the internet is a necessary but not sufficient cause in the process of self-radicalization that leads to “homegrown jihadi terrorism.” To put it in more colloquial terms, it’s only a piece of a larger puzzle.

The same thing, to a greater or lesser extent, can be said about the “explanations” that were proffered in the obscenely immediate aftermath of the slaughter at Pulse. The difference is that people doing the proffering insisted that theirs was, if not the entire puzzle, the lion’s share of the puzzle.

These “explanations” remind me of the scene in “A Beautiful Mind” in which Ronald Nash (Russell Crowe) tells Alicia (Jennifer Connelly) to pick any shape. She says, “An umbrella,” and he takes her hands and traces the umbrella pattern in the stars.

It’s a great scene. It’s so great that most people watching it fail to notice that there is no pattern. Nash, in an example of the “Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy,” is simply disregarding any data, in this case stars, that doesn’t fit into the preferred pattern.

Likewise, the people proffering these “explanations” have to downplay, gloss over, and/or disregard anything that does not confirm their “explanation.” It’s part and parcel of “controlling the narrative.”

Thus, those who claim that the slaughter in Orlando was about homophobia have to downplay, gloss over, and/or downplay any facts that point to a possible role for jihadist ideology in Mateen’s actions. Those who claim that that it was about jihadist ideology and the White House’s failure to properly deal with the threat (the two went hand-in-hand most of the time) have to do the same to evidence, such as this, this, and this, that may have only scratched the surface of the farrago that was Omar Mateen’s inner life: his beliefs, his impulses, and his motivations. The same could be said about the “guns” and “mental illness” explanations.

Just about the only “explanation” not vying for, much less receiving, primacy is that there is no “explanation,” at least not one that will substantially assist us in preventing future attacks like this one.

That’s a difficult thing for Americans, including most Christians, to accept. As Will McCants, of the Brookings Institution and, told the New York Times, “There’s a strong impulse, especially in America, to ‘do something’ after a tragedy like this. . . . if we know why the tragedy happened, we’ll know what to do.”

The problem is that the motivations of “lone wolves” like Mateen are “tough to pin down.” Since they’re “not part of an organization,” their motivations are, almost by definition, “idiosyncratic.” Any insights we gain into what led to the events at Pulse probably won’t be very useful when it comes to preventing further attacks. That’s how “idiosyncratic” rolls.

That doesn’t mean that we are helpless, much less that we shouldn’t learn from what happened. What it does mean is that we should understand that there are limits to what we can know even in hindsight, much less in advance.

So, as we say here at BreakPoint, what’s a Christian to think (and do) about the mass slaughter at Pulse? The first thing is to understand is that the Christian “take” is that there is no take. What happened in Orlando is not a “teachable moment,” and the victims and their loved ones, and even the killer, are not data points to be (selectively) cited in support of some “explanation” that is extraneous to the fact that 49 people, plus the killer, are dead and their families are left to pick up the pieces.

What should we do, then? Pray, preferably in Matthew 6 mode: “But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret.” We don’t need to announce that we are doing what should be doing.

And if we can’t do either, then we should do and say nothing. There is no take.


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