WASHINGTON – The worst mass shooting in US history and an historically consequential terrorist attack on American soil broke hearts nationwide Sunday morning, as the country woke to news of 50 people murdered and 53 more wounded in a nightclub in Orlando, Florida.
The details of the massacre are shocking, but the event itself comes as no surprise to US law enforcement, which has long known this sort of devastating, mass-casualty attack could happen at countless locations across a country armed to the teeth.
The Orlando massacre is classified as an act of terrorism – but a complex of challenges unique to America make this case impossible to simply compartmentalize.
The 29-year-old perpetrator was a Muslim and an extremist pledged to Islamic State. Whatever his particular motivations, the targeting of a gay club appears to be yet another example of an attack on liberal democratic values and the people those values are especially meant to protect– oppressed peoples, stigmatized minorities and those who live by their rights to free speech and expression, such as Jews, gays and journalists, so often in the crosshairs of such attacks.
Yet assaulting innocent civilians over their way of life – and thus attacking those fundamental American values – is not derivatively an act of terrorism. In America, a man who is white and homophobic and enters a gay nightclub and kills 50 people may technically be committing an extraordinary hate crime.
Last year’s massacre at a church in Charleston, South Carolina, in which a Confederate sympathizer murdered nine black men and women in prayer, was investigated by the FBI as an act of domestic terrorism but ultimately prosecuted as a crime motivated by hatred.
An attack must thus be motivated by foreign influence – the attacker's political interest must be to terrorize for greater international purposes – in order for it to be classified as an act of terrorism. And from a legal perspective, the death toll and method by which the attack is executed do not necessarily indicate the nature of an event.
We may be entering a period in which terrorist acts of this magnitude can occur
with some frequency and through means that have become conventional in modern American life – mass shootings in crowded, confined spaces where liberal minorities or any other group of Americans have congregated to celebrate a way of life that extremists reject.
From the standpoint of law enforcement, Orlando’s Pulse Nightclub is simply one in a million potential soft targets for lone wolf actors incited on the Internet. Police cannot man the gates at every club and every restaurant, every cafe and every mall, nor would an America so wedded to its freedoms choose that path.
And yet, without the adoption of a police state, the security-minded are forced to come up with alternatives to prevent extremists – much less politically motivated Islamist extremists – from performing these sorts of acts.
That is why America’s gun culture plays such a central role in this debate: Because the undeniable accessibility of guns – including military- style weapons – has compounded law enforcement fears over lone wolf actors eyeing soft targets such as clubs, temples and newsrooms.
Uniquely in America, breaking news of a shooting at a nightclub with a tragically high death toll does not necessarily mean that terrorism has occurred. It did occur on Saturday night. But the method by which this terrorist chose to make his statement is divorced, to a certain extent, from his motivations.
The massacre in Orlando was equal parts hate crime, equal parts mass shooting, as it was the sort of terrorism roundly feared across the Western world. The complex of those challenges makes future events particularly difficult to prevent.