In the small hours of Sunday morning, June 12, Omar Mateen used his cell phone to dial 911 in Orlando, Florida. When he was put through to a police operator, Mateen swore allegiance to the Islamic State and told the dispatcher that he was about to enter a bar called The Pulse.
A 29-year-old American citizen, Omar Mateen carried a rifle, a handgun and more than half a dozen magazines. Mateen exchanged shots with an off duty policeman as he entered the building, and seconds later opened fire on the dance floor. The bar was thronged with gay and straight patrons, drawn to a Latin themed dance party. As Mateen fired into the crowd, a DJ and the club’s bouncers courageously risked their lives to rush scores of potential victims through the exits. The wounded bled on sidewalks outside. These were the lucky ones.
For the next three hours, Omar Mateen terrorized the hundred or so victims trapped inside. He murdered forty-nine in cold blood and wounded another forty-three, ranting about ISIS and praying aloud as he did so. Those of his hostages unable to reach doors or windows stuffed themselves into cupboards and bathroom stalls. Others played dead. At 5AM, an Orlando Police SWAT team used a breaching charge and the ram on an armored car to enter the building.
After a brief but harrowing gunfight, officers were able to outflank and kill Mateen, but not before he had succeeded in shooting one SWAT operator in the head. The officer narrowly avoided becoming the Mateen’s 50th victim and escaped injury only because he was wearing a ballistic helmet. Once the building was searched paramedics surged into the club to treat the wounded and carry away the dead.
The worst mass shooting in US history was over; it had taken slightly over one hundred and eighty minutes from start to finish. When Americans awoke on Sunday morning, they were left to try to make sense of the carnage. For some, it was easier to believe that the attack on The Pulse had been an anti-gay hate crime — a senseless murder spree carried out by a homophobic madman. Omar Mateen was homophobic — his father told reporters that his son had been deeply offended when he saw men kiss on a recent trip to Miami — but Mateen’s hatred was rooted not merely in unresolved psychological issues, but also in a murderous infatuation with the Islamic State.
Though described by his local Imam as “peaceful” and “hoping to become a police officer,” Omar Mateen’s beliefs were not those of a mainstream Muslim. His personal religious journey had taken him into the violent darkness of a fanatic. As Mateen imbibed the poisonous rhetoric of the Islamic State, he gradually self-radicalized and became a dangerous bigot. His hatred sought a path to violence. Mateen’s connections to an American suicide bomber in Syria eventually brought him to the attention of the FBI. For a time he was placed under surveillance. But, like those who surveilled the Charlie Hebdo attackers in Paris, the FBI eventually grew tired of watching and waiting for Mateen to act. Mateen managed to fade from the FBI’s radar. The would-be terrorist bided his time and then picked his target, a place that was quintessentially American, a place of tolerance and of happiness— a neighborhood bar where young people could be what they wanted to be.
That gay Americans should become victims of the Islamic State came as a terrible shock, but should not have been a surprise. Videos showing the fate of scores of gay men and women in the territories of the so-called Islamic State litter the internet. This year alone in Syria, more than a hundred people accused of immorality and homosexuality have been murdered by IS. The victims have been thrown off buildings, beheaded in public squares and have had their corpses plowed into the earth by bulldozers. This, too, shocks us, but should not surprise us. What the Islamic State preaches is hatred; what it offers as morality is an infinitely deep well of evil and violence. Its victims and targets include not only gay men and women but also anyone who is “different”: Christians, Jews, Shi’ites and Yazidis; devotees of “inferior religions” are to be killed out of hand. The more vulnerable among them, women and children, are offered for sexual slavery as an alternative to death.
It is not just other faiths that need to be exterminated; the Islamic State routinely invokes the doctrine of Takfir— the sanctioned murder of fellow Sunnis who are judged not firm enough in their beliefs. These enemies may be raped, stripped of property and then shot, drowned in cages or burned alive. All who deny the blood-spattered “true faith” are infidels, heretics or apostates who must be wiped from the face of the earth. What Omar Mateen believed in was not a religion, but an Apocalyptic cult. It is a useless quibble to maintain that Mateen was not, technically, a member of the Islamic State. He invoked its name and dedicated his crimes to its glory. That is enough, and more than enough for us to understand why he acted.
A few thoughtless office-seekers have tried to make this tragedy into political hay. The issue is not gun control or refugee policy, but a fundamental matter of national security. We are facing a scourge as nihilistic, violent and destructive as Nazism. There will be other attacks, and they will happen soon. We may be sure that others will come forward, men as twisted by hatred and as cowardly as Mateen. How we meet this threat is a matter as much of philosophy as precaution. The measures we take against terrorism must not infringe upon the fundamental rights that make us what we are: a free, diverse and open society. As Franklin said, “Those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
Evil is evil, whether it cloaks itself in religion or hides its crimes in pursuit of any “greater good.” The Islamic State and its bigoted hatred are not just a perversion of Islam; they are a danger to every creed, race, nation, culture and religion on earth. They will pick targets that epitomize all that they despise about America and individual liberty: houses of worship, assemblies where free citizens gather, monuments, and places of tolerance and acceptance like The Pulse. The fight we are in has no front lines and battle can take place anywhere, worldwide, in the instant it takes for a religious fanatic to pull a trigger or push a detonator.
All of us, gay or straight, religious, agnostic or atheist, partisan or apolitical, must now declare ourselves no longer to be the victims, but the enemies of the Islamic State’s hatred and violence. When Omar Mateen walked through those doors in Orlando we were all his intended victims; his target was America.
Chuck Pfarrer is a former Assault Element Commander at the Navy’s SEAL Team Six. He is a frequent contributor and the author of Phillip Nolan: The Man Without a Country.