I read three news stories yesterday, all of which had something curious in common. Two (one about the Russians, one about Syria) were fairly normal stories, not exactly out of the ordinary, and widely reported. The third was unexpected – about the attack on a nightclub in Orlando by an angry Muslim in 2016 – and not so widely reported – but very interesting indeed.
The first was about Boris Johnson, and concerns the suspected poisoning of former Russian double agent, Sergei Skripal and his daughter, who were found unconscious on Sunday.
Despite the fact that we don’t yet know what caused their condition, and the fact that a former MI5 officer could see “no conceivable reason that . . . the Russian state would have been targeting him”, Boris Johnson decided to fire a warning shot at the Russian government, and said that “the UK would respond “robustly” to any evidence of Russian involvement. Johnson added that he was not pointing fingers at this stage, but described Russia as “a malign and disruptive force”.
Ah yes, the “Russian menace”. We have heard endless accusations and allegations in the past two years about Russia being involved in all kinds of malign and disruptive behaviour, but I have seen virtually no evidence for any of them. Compared to the amazingly disruptive (and destructive) behaviour of some other countries I could mention, Russia seems pretty tame.
Syria – and narratives
Second, and also from the BBC, we have a story from Syria, about a ‘Chlorine attack’: “Medics in the rebel-held Eastern Ghouta area of Syria say they have been treating people with breathing problems after a suspected chlorine attack. ”
Yes, it is yet another allegation of a gas attack by Syrian government forces attacking rebel held areas. We have had a remarkable number of these allegations over the last few years, and the evidence suggests that most of these allegations are pretty dubious. (I’ve covered that here and here.)
But despite the lack of evidence of Syrian government use of chemical weapons, large numbers of people in the west simply assume that these stories are true. And, in the same way, despite the lack of evidence of Russian “malign and disruptive” interference in the affairs of other countries, large numbers of people in the west simply assume that these stories are true. Evidence, apparently, is not the important thing. The important thing is ‘what everybody is saying’, and what you keep on hearing. If people hear something often enough, from enough sources, then people will simply accept it – as long as those sources are respectable. There is a some truth in the saying that if you repeat a lie often enough, people will believe it. But it is much more true that if every politician and media source seems to be repeating the lie, people will believe it.
These days, people often refer to these things as “narratives” – a storyline that people are pushing. It basically means a theory, a hypothesis, something that people believe, about some matter, often something of current interest, something that people are talking about, or something controversial.
The 2016 Orlando nightclub shootings
And that brings me to the third story that caught my attention – which is the one that I think is really interesting: an article in the Intercept by Graham Greenwald and Murtaza Hussain. It, unlike the two BBC stories, actually uses the word “narrative”. It reports (and you will note that the third word of the article is “evidence” – a good sign!) –
“NEWLY RELEASED EVIDENCE today calls into serious doubt many of the most widespread beliefs about the 2016 shooting by Omar Mateen at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, which killed 49 people along with Mateen himself. . . . In particular, Mateen went to Pulse only after having scouted other venues that night that were wholly unrelated to the LGBT community, only to find that they were too defended by armed guards and police, and ultimately chose Pulse only after a generic Google search for “Orlando nightclubs” – not “gay clubs” – produced Pulse as the first search result.
. . . numerous myths continue to persist about Mateen’s actions, particularly regarding his motives in why he attacked Pulse. As so often happens in the wake of mass shootings and terror attacks, media narratives emerge early on, when little is known, and never become dislodged from the public’s mind, even as the formal investigation reveals that there is little evidence to support those initial, still-common media claims — or, as is the case here, overwhelming evidence that strongly negates those beliefs.
Perhaps most importantly, Mateen’s alleged motive in choosing Pulse — that he wanted to target and kill LGBTs due to some toxic mix of self-hatred over his own sexual orientation and his fealty to Islam — has been treated as unquestionably true in countless media accounts, statements from public officials, and ultimately in the public mind. But ample evidence now affirmatively casts serious doubt about whether there is any truth to this widely accepted belief about Mateen’s motives in attacking Pulse. While some of this conflicting evidence has been reported in the same media outlets that originally disseminated the narrative that Mateen sought to target the LGBT community, it has been downplayed to the point where few in the public are even aware that the original theories about Mateen’s motives have been undermined.
By repeatedly emphasizing this anti-gay motive, U.S. media reports had the effect, if not the intent, of obscuring what appears to have been Mateen’s overriding, arguably exclusive motive: a desire for retribution and deterrence toward U.S. violence in Muslim countries. This highly dubious “anti-gay” storyline has also created a virtually unanimous climate in Orlando’s community that is demanding the punishment of anyone remotely connected to Mateen . . . .
As is true of most terrorists, Mateen was determined to ensure that the world knew the grievances and causes in whose name he was slaughtering innocent people. . . .
All of [his] statements contain numerous, now-standard grievances about U.S. foreign policy that are commonly cited by Muslims who attack Americans: specifically, the use by the U.S. and its allies of widespread violence against Muslim civilians in the Middle East, and the perceived need to bring violence back to U.S. soil as a means of punishing past violence and deterring future aggression.
Many of Mateen’s statements are filled with the sorts of denunciations of U.S. violence in the region that are typically downplayed, if not outright ignored, when U.S. media examine why radical Muslims attack Americans. Mateen’s statements . . . emphasized one cause: the ongoing killing of Muslim civilians by the U.S.
Critically, what is missing from all of Mateen’s comments — from his online decrees, his talks with police negotiators during the attack, and statements made to his victims and survivors at the club — is glaring and revealing: at no point during the hours of his attack on Pulse did Mateen even mention, let alone rail against, LGBTs. . . .
The same is true of his extensive conversations with law enforcement officials and his Facebook postings . . . “You kill innocent women and children by doing us airstrikes,” Mateen wrote on Facebook. “Now taste the Islamic state vengeance. . . . his extensive discussions with police negotiators, . . . focused exclusively on demands that the U.S. . . cease air strikes and the killing of civilians in Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq. “Because you have to tell America to stop bombing Syria and Iraq. They are killing a lot of innocent people . . . What am I to do here when my people are getting killed over there. . . .You need to stop the U.S. air strikes. . . . a lot of innocent women and children are getting killed in Syria and Iraq and Afghanistan, okay?. . . ”
There is no evidence he even knew that Pulse was a gay club. . . . And yet the popular belief persists — often finding its way into official pronouncements, LGBT group materials, and media discussions — that the Pulse shooting represented a deliberate, concerted attack – a “hate crime” – on the LGBT community due to homophobia. . . . it is crucial to understand the truth of what happened, and not to allow a politically valuable narrative . . . to continue to prevail if it is, in fact, false. “
Politically valuable narratives
Note that phrase: ” a politically valuable narrative.” And the narrative, of course, was widely used by politicians.
“Then-candidate Hillary Clinton said during her visit to Orlando that, while an act of terror, the Pulse massacre “was also an act of hate,” adding that “the gunman attacked an LGBT nightclub during Pride Month.” She vowed: “We will keep fighting for your right to live freely, openly and without fear. Hate has absolutely no place in America.””
And not just in America. Here in Scotland, back in 2016, the BBC reported
“A one minute silence is also to be held in the chamber at the Scottish Parliament on Tuesday in memory of the shooting victims. The rainbow Pride flag, a symbol of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community, has been flying over the Scottish government’s headquarters.”
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon tweeted: “The #Pride flag will fly at half mast over @scotgov HQ today in memory of those whose lives were taken in #Orlando. #lovewins”.
Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson, who proposed to her partner Jennifer Wilson in May, wrote: “News from Orlando is shocking – people from all around the world stand with the LGBTQ community today.”
Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale, who confirmed she was gay two months ago, tweeted: “Scenes from Orlando utterly heart-breaking. The very freedom to love and dance attacked in the most brutal, destructive and senseless way.”
After President Obama had called the shooting “an act of terror and hate”, Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie tweeted: “The President speaks for me. We must stand together against this hate.”
The narrative remains
And Greenwald and Hussain sum this up with an important point:
DESPITE THIS MOUNTAIN of evidence that strongly negates the original media-disseminated themes about Mateen’s life and his likely motive in targeting Pulse, the early myths remain lodged in the public mind and even in contemporary news reports. In part that’s because much of the evidence has remained under seal, in part because subsequent media debunking received a tiny fraction of the attention of the early, aggressively hyped inflammatory theories, and in part because there has been no political advantage to challenging the politically moving and useful narrative that the attack on Pulse was a hate crime against gays.
And by the way, it seems to me that the reason that narratives get started is that people who like them and find them useful grab them and use them. We all have a tendency to believe things that we like, and that suit us. And if something is useful to people who are powerful and influential – e.g. politicians and media figures – then it is likely to be widely reported, and thus widely believed.
Two significant points
There are two things that need to be pointed out here. First, nobody could accuse Greenwald of having any agenda against the gay community: he is married to another man. Second, not only was there no political advantage to challenging the politically useful narrative about Mateen’s motive, there was much advantage in keeping quiet about his real motive. He was unhappy about the fact that America had, by its actions in the Middle East, killed thousands of innocent men, women, and children, and been responsible for starting wars which killed hundreds of thousands more. And he was probably unhappy that very few Americans were (or are) remotely concerned about this.
And those facts are pretty unpalatable.
I find it worrying that so few Americans – or people in the UK – are remotely concerned over the hundreds of thousands innocent men, women, and children, who have been killed in the Middle East because of the actions of our governments. And yet they are very, very concerned about the few hundred that have been killed in response in Western Europe and America by angry Muslims in recent years.
And it is a response. These attacks pretty well never happened before the invasion of Iraq in 2003. We started it. And we, the people, voted in the politicians who did it, and proceeded to re-elect them in 2004 and 2005. We have killed far more innocent Muslims in their countries, than the paltry number of westerners killed by terrorist attacks by Muslims here in the west.
And yet I see very little sign that people are willing to acknowledge that. You certainly don’t get politicians or the media pointing it out – probably because it would not be a popular narrative. Admitting that you are wrong an repenting does not come easily to people.
Will anyone speak?
Greenwald is to be congratulated for highlighting this. For him, of all people, to pen an article that makes uncomfortable reading for the gay community is impressive.
So who should speak up and point out that actually, out nation’s crimes against Muslims are far worse that the crimes of Muslims against us? Who is going to point out that we started it – not them? Who, in countries where people are increasingly speaking out about the evils of Islam, and the dangers of letting in too many Muslim immigrants, will say these unpopular things.
Perhaps, in the spirit of Greenwald, the most appropriate people to do so are those who would be least expected to. Surely it should be those of us who are Christians. Yes, I know about the failings and evils of Islam. Yes, I know about the way Christians are treated in many Muslim lands today. Yes, I think we should speak openly about those things.
But surely Christians, of all people, should be those who believe that admitting that you are wrong, and repentance, are both good things.