When I opened my computer Sunday morning and saw Omar Mateen's face staring back at me, the first thing I thought—before the facts had a real chance to register, before the full details of the carnage emerged—was, “He looks kind of hot."
A painful, uncomfortable truth: that amidst horror and incomprehension, aching and anger and a sorrow too deep even to name, I registered a fleeting feeling that one would not want to feel—or to admit to have felt—at moments like this.
It turns out that Omar Mateen had some painful, uncomfortable truths of his own, some feelings he was not supposed to have felt—or felt like he wasn't. Such at least seems the most likely conclusion following revelations that Mateen had been something of a regular at the very club he so savagely attacked, had frequented gay dating apps like Grindr and Jack'd, had chatted up men on some of them.
And so the tragic but straightforward narrative of a hate crime committed against queer love morphed into something darker, more conflicted and complex.
I found myself oddly grateful for that—another complex, unexpected emotion. Grateful because the earlier, simpler story that first emerged on Sunday morning had already begun to be used to justify yet another oversimplified narrative—one which tarred a whole culture and region and religion with the same facile brush, furthering a false and falsely comforting story of a people who "hate us for our freedoms."
Yes, I am talking about Donald Trump, who appropriated queer, trans, Black and Latinx pain in order to reiterate his egregious call for a ban on Muslim immigration—among other unconscionable remarks. But I am also talking about Hillary Clinton.
In a speech delivered in Cleveland on Monday, Clinton declared, "The attack in Orlando makes it even more clear, we cannot contain this threat. We must defeat it." And by "defeat it" she meant the predictable call for more bombs, more war and more carnage throughout the Middle East.
"We should keep the pressure on ramping up the air campaign, accelerating support for our friends fighting to take and hold ground and pushing our partners in the region to do even more," Clinton continued, before also proposing "an intelligence surge to bolster our capabilities across the board."
Clinton then concluded by invoking 9/11, stating that the country must "get back to the spirit of those days, the spirit of 9/12"—allegedly a time of national "unity" when Americans "did not attack each-other [but rather] worked with each other to protect out country."
Many of us remember the days after the 9/11 tragedy quite differently. We remember a terrible, chilling time when the pain and trauma of those attacks was used to stifle dissent, persecute Muslim Americans, expand the surveillance state and launch us into two disastrous wars—wars as responsible as anything for the emergence of ISIS, the newest in that seemingly endless stream of enemies we keep fighting and creating and fighting again.
Despite all of their differences, then, both Trump and Clinton took what Sam Adler-Bell rightly called this "monstrously specific tragedy" and reworked it into a generic, universalizing narrative: one of some nebulous, homogenous "others" who simply and straightforwardly hate "us."
But the specificities of this tragedy do not fit that particular fairy tale. The terrible, frightening truth—for all of us as Americans and, quite likely, for those of us in the LGBT community—is that Omar Mateen was not one of them, he was one of us.
A tortured and conflicted one of us, deeply warped and with a dark history of domestic violence, who took out his own demons on the innocent—ending their lives and his own in a club which might, in another version of this story, have been the very safe space where he could have worked through his self-hatred to find acceptance, even love.
But is that not the very lesson we should take from this whole horror? If we wish to extrapolate some moral from this (ultimately incomprehensible) event and apply it to the broader dynamics of modern America, it should be this: the demons we are fighting are within. No amount of bombs or wars will defeat them, no bans on immigration, no new black torture sites or expanded surveillance programs.
Which means acknowledging that homophobia, transphobia and toxic masculinity persist, not just in the Muslim-American community, but in all faith communities and across our society as a whole. It means examining how not just homophobia, but also racism and Islamophobia contributed to the mixture of contradictory forces and feelings which ultimately pulled apart Omar Mateen from the inside. And it means understanding how America's imperialist wars engender the very fundamentalisms they ostensibly seek to eradicate—fundamentalisms which then provide comforting fairy tales of their own, for lost souls such as Mateen.
This is a much more knotty, ambiguous moral than the one proffered by Trump and Clinton. It is also the one we must cling to, in the midst of our sorrow and anger and aching.
Some may object to any attempt to impose "morals" on the attack, to extrapolate meaning from horror, to transform tragedy into allegory—and rightly so. Events like this ultimately defy all explanation. But humans are meaning-making creatures; spinning senselessness into sense is what we do. And powerful figures like Trump and Clinton are already conspiring to spin this into a story which will be used to further the aims of American empire.
But American empire is not for us—it is the external face of the same forces of capitalism, patriarchy and white supremacy which have inflicted violence on our communities for centuries.
As queer, trans, Black and Brown communities mourn, we must resist letting our pain and suffering be instrumentalized by those who seek to justify Islamophobia and war. Our pain and trauma are not for them—neither are our joy, rage, suffering, struggle and resilience. We must continue to tell other, truer stories. They are darker and more intricate but, ultimately, infinitely more beautiful.
Bennett Carpenter is a graduate student in the literature department.