The surprising ways the Orlando shooting is familiar

The shooter's affinity for ISIS is apparently just one part of the story. In other ways, he also looking like mass shooters at Sandy Hook or American colleges. 

Chris O'Meara/AP
Josh Mercer wears a T-shirt Monday in honor of two of his friends who were killed during a fatal shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla.

When Omar Mateen entered the Pulse nightclub on Sunday morning and opened fire, it may not have been his first time at the club. According to locals, Mr. Mateen, an American of Afghan descent from nearby Fort Pierce, had visited several times over the span of three years.

Federal officials are investigating the extent to which Mateen had actively scouted the club and other locations as he geared up for a terror attack.

Yet revelations from clubgoers about Mateen’s interest in the club, as well as reports that the killer tried to make contact with gay men on social media apps, are opening a new line of inquiry for those investigating the worst terrorist attack on United States soil since 9/11.

Such leads could balance the story of his radicalization with a narrative more familiar to American mass killers: a deep inner conflict churned into hatred through self-loathing and shame.

Many experts who study mass shootings in the US say one of the strongest common threads is an inner turmoil produced by a warped view of masculinity. The emerging details about Mateen would put him squarely into that trend.

That is not to diminish the influence of the Islamic State’s extremist interpretation of Islam on Mateen. Rather, it suggests that a complex mixture of motives might have led to Sunday’s massacre – and that America’s evolving threat of “lone wolf” terrorism could increasingly be a product of that toxic brew. Recognizing that fact could be crucial to law enforcement efforts going forward. 

Though the Federal Bureau of Investigation met with Mateen in 2013 and 2014, it “misunderstood him,” says Adam Lankford, a criminologist at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa.

“They realized he was not a sophisticated, committed terrorist – that his ideology was inconsistent and he boasted and bragged,” he adds. “But if you instead look at it in terms of other mass shooters, someone who shows erratic behavior, wants attention, latches onto ideologies in an obsessive and erratic manner – those things all make sense in terms of mass shooters and are not new with this offender.”

President Obama essentially characterized many of America’s recent mass shooters when he called Mateen “an angry, disturbed, unstable young man” Tuesday.

  • A report on Adam Lanza, the Sandy Hook killer, by the Connecticut Office of Child advocate traced “his descent after high school into a stew of depression, isolation and suicidal thoughts, spending months in his bedroom with blacked-out windows, communicating in cyberspace with fellow connoisseurs of mass murder,” according to the Hartford Courant. He killed 20 grade-schoolers and six educators in December 2012.
  • Isla Vista, Calif., shooter Elliott Rodger targeted sorority women during a campus shooting spree that ended with six people dead. In a manifesto, he called himself a “supreme gentleman,” and wrote, “I don't know why you girls aren't attracted to me, but I will punish you all for it.”
  • The shooter at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Ore., last October, Christopher Harper-Mercer, left behind writings “that showed he had become increasingly interested in other high-profile shootings, angry at not having a girlfriend and bitter at a world that he believed was working against him,” The New York Times reported.
  • The profile of Mateen, while emerging, remains incomplete.

    In one part of his life, he admired the law. Mateen had been working as a security guard, had gotten an associate degree in criminal justice, and yearned to be a police officer. Despite drawing the attention of the FBI, he retained his security guard license as well as his firearms license.

    Coworkers have since said he often made bigoted and homophobic statements, sometimes angrily. But one of Mateen’s high school friends told the Palm Beach Post that the duo used to go to gay bars. A nightclub entertainer named Chris Callen told the Orlando Sentinel: “He’s been going to this bar for at least three years.”

    And on Monday night, Orlando resident Jim Van Horn told the Associated Press that he recognized Mateen from several visits to Pulse.

    Seddique Mateen, Omar’s father, emphatically told The Palm Beach Post Monday that his son was not gay. “If he was gay, why would he do something like this?” he said.

    But to Mr. Van Horn, the massacre may have been part of a lashing-out by a man trying to “deal with his inner demons, of trying to get rid of his anger of homosexuality.”

    Van Horn, who lost three friends in the shooting, added: “It’s really confusing to me … [b]ecause you can’t change who you are. But if you pretend that you are different, then you may shoot up a gay bar.”

    Other acquaintances have also said Mateen often made bigoted and homophobic remarks. His ex-wife said she wondered about his sexuality, though said on Tuesday that, “I don’t know if he was gay.”

    “Certainly, we have a lot of things going on here, and the psychology of one individual can be complex and even self-contradictory,” says Professor Lankford.

    Yet evidence of inner sexual conflict, Lankford adds, “makes sense in terms of criminal psychology. Anger … comes out of shame – that’s a very common theme among mass shooters. And that can be exacerbated by religious ideological beliefs, where someone feels like they’re living a lie, and they have hatred of themselves and hatred of people they’re attracted to but don’t want to be attracted to.”

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