Is It Terrorism Or A Mass Shooting?

The appalling mass shooting in Orlando early Sunday morning rips back open the festering confusion about what exactly is going on in today's world and today's America.

Quickly the gunman was identified as 29-year-old Omar Mateen, an American of Afghan origin, and the FBI has suggested that he had leanings toward "jihadist ideology." So, in today's American parlance, that makes it terrorism and him a terrorist.

But he used an assault rifle and a handgun, just like (to cite one example among many) Robert Dear at the Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs last Nov. 27. So that makes it an old-fashioned American mass shooting of an all too familiar kind. Doesn't it?

Then again, he is also said to have been armed with "some kind of device," so ... well, devices tend to be used by terrorists, right?

I raise the Robert Dear comparison pointedly, because it's crying out to be raised. The Colorado Springs incident was nationally notorious for about five days, until the Dec. 2 attack on the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, California - by a Pakistani-American and his Pakistani wife - allowed most Americans to forget it. I couldn't forget Colorado Springs, though, for a very personal reason: my parents live in that strange city, and my mother sometimes shops at the King Sooper supermarket in the same shopping center as Planned Parenthood.

Here's a paragraph from a Guardian news story published Sunday:

In a press conference on Sunday morning, an FBI spokesman said investigators believed the attacker may have had extremist beliefs, and would consider possible links to Isis, but cautioned they were pursuing multiple leads.

It's tiresome always to have to be parsing journalistic language. But it's necessary because (to state the obvious) how we use language determines and reflects how we think, or fail to think, about the world we live in. Investigators believe Omar Mateen may have had extremist beliefs. Okay, let's say he did. They will "consider possible links to ISIS." Again, okay, maybe. Then again, maybe not.

Robert Dear absolutely was (is, because he's still alive to face his day in court) a terrorist and an extremist. I made a point of speaking on exactly this subject, on Feb. 28 at the excellent Broadmoor Community Church in Colorado Springs.  "Yes, what Robert Dear did was an act of terrorism, by any reasonable definition," I said.

His strangely admirable insistence on his own guilt is proof of this - Dear himself wants it known that his motivation was political. And everybody in this room knows that Colorado Springs is a high-pressure crucible for the hard and divisive national issues that Dear's act brought sharply, if all too briefly, into relief. Colorado Springs is a laboratory for such stuff and, after observing the experiment over the thirty years my parents have lived here, I'm not sure it's turning out all that well. ... For better or worse, warts and all, whether we like it or not, this town is America.

I have a personal thing about Colorado Springs, for understandable personal reasons. But a case can certainly be made that Orlando is at least as representatively American, for better and worse. It was Disney World, after all, that President Bush told us all to visit just after the 9/11 attacks.

Who knows what was going on in Omar Mateen's mind before and during the attack, but the fact that he attacked a gay nightclub is disturbing on several levels. Was he motivated by puritanical disapproval of what he considered American sexual license? So was Robert Dear. "San Bernardino has become a national byword," I told the churchgoers in February. "Colorado Springs has not. Many Americans who consider themselves Christians don't want to have to face either armed white men like Robert Dear or the political bullies of the anti-Planned Parenthood lobby."

I fear that in the days and weeks to come, the American public will indulge in the same old insinuations, recriminations and evasions. We can't afford to do that. I fear the Orlando attack might even affect the presidential election, as Americans across the sociopolitical spectrum seek common cause in circling the wagons against Muslims. But, if Omar Mateen was a Muslim, we can't avoid facing the fact that he was also an American - just like Robert Dear. And Dear was a terrorist motivated by extremist ideology - just like Omar Mateen.

Ethan Casey is the author of the cycle of essays "America: Now What?" and the books Home Free: An American Road Trip and Alive and Well in Pakistanboth published by Blue Ear Books.