Every mass tragedy begets a frantic search for answers, for a common understanding of what happened, for a narrative, and the 2016 Pulse massacre was no different.
Not long after Omar Mateen opened fire inside a bustling gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, the media scrambled to understand his depraved actions. Almost overnight, a narrative emerged that until now has been impossible to dislodge: Mateen planned and executed an attack on Pulse because he hated gay people.
“Let’s say it plainly: This was a mass slaying aimed at LGBT people,” Tim Teeman wrote in The Daily Beast. The massacre was “undeniably a homophobic hate crime,” Jeet Heer wrote in The New Republic. Some speculated that Mateen was a closeted gay man. He was likely “trying to reconcile his inner feelings with his strongly homophobic Muslim culture,” James S. Robbins wrote in USA Today.
There was compelling evidence of other motivations. Mateen had pledged allegiance to the self-described Islamic State during the shooting, and explicitly said that he was acting to avenge air strikes in the Middle East. “You have to tell America to stop bombing Syria and Iraq. They are killing a lot of innocent people,” he told a crisis negotiator over the phone while at Pulse. “What am I to do here when my people are getting killed over there. You get what I’m saying?”
But this was a tricky thing to get a handle on — 49 dead and another 53 wounded, so many of them members of a historically marginalized and persecuted group. How could they not have been targeted? To say that the attack was not “rooted in homophobia,” one commenter wrote in USA Today, was to “erase the LGBT community … causing only more pain by invalidating their experiences.”
Over the past two weeks in Orlando, Mateen’s widow, Noor Salman, was tried for having allegedly helped him plan his attack. The popular understanding of the Pulse shooting as a carefully targeted massacre was on trial as well. And in acquitting Salman, 31, on Friday, a jury also delivered a verdict on the story we’d told ourselves about the killings: We’d gotten it wrong.
In the wake of the shooting, the media and public focused on certain details, many of which were later determined to be unfounded, and discounted others, like Mateen’s own explanation for his actions. If Mateen had indeed been motivated by something other than homophobia, the grief and terror of the gay community were no less real and no less urgent for it. But the narrative that was repeated and turned into fact ― that Mateen had picked Pulse because of who its patrons were and what they represented ― had the effect of obscuring another, smaller injustice: the prosecution of Mateen’s wife.
A Muslim woman who by her family’s account was beaten by Mateen, Salman might have been a sympathetic figure in a different context. But I think now of Bob Kunst’s sign. A longtime human rights activist, Kunst was protesting outside the federal courthouse, just two miles from the nightclub where the tragedy occurred, as Salman’s trial began. “‘FRY’ HER,” his sign read, “TILL SHE HAS NO ‘PULSE.’” It didn’t seem to occur to many people that Noor Salman might have been a victim of Mateen, too.
“The media missed the story,” Charles Swift, one of Salman’s lawyers said, “because they depended on the government to tell it to them.”
Salman’s trial cast doubt on everything we thought we knew about Mateen. There was no evidence he was a closeted gay man, no evidence that he was ever on Grindr. He looked at porn involving older women, but investigators who scoured Mateen’s electronic devices couldn’t find any internet history related to homosexuality. (There were daily, obsessive searches about ISIS, however.) Mateen had extramarital affairs with women, two of whom testified during the trial about his duplicitous ways.
Mateen may very well have been homophobic. He supported ISIS, after all, and his father, an FBI informant currently under criminal investigation, told NBC that his son once got angry after seeing two men kissing. But whatever his personal feelings, the overwhelming evidence suggests his attack was not motivated by it.
As far as investigators could tell, Mateen had never been to Pulse before, whether as a patron or to case the nightclub. Even prosecutors acknowledged in their closing statement that Pulse was not his original target; it was the Disney Springs shopping and entertainment complex. They presented evidence demonstrating that Mateen chose Pulse randomly less than an hour before the attack. It is not clear he even knew it was a gay bar. A security guard recalled Mateen asking where all the women were, apparently in earnest, in the minutes before he began his slaughter.
In her news conference on June 21, 2016, then-U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch called the attack “an act of terror and an act of hate” and pledged to examine all possible motivations for Mateen’s actions.
Seven months after the shooting, Salman was hit with federal terrorism charges for allegedly aiding and abetting her husband. But hate crime charges never came — “and now you know why,” said Swift. Despite the overwhelming public consensus, there apparently wasn’t enough evidence for a hate crime classification. In fact, the 2016 Hate Crimes in Florida Report does not include the 49 victims of the Pulse shooting in its official total. “These crimes were not classified as hate crimes by the Orlando Police Department in the Uniform Crime Reporting Information System,” the report noted.
From the start, the evidence against Salman was paper-thin and hinged on a “confession” that an FBI agent hand-wrote for her after an 11-hour interrogation in the immediate aftermath of the massacre that was neither filmed nor recorded. Her lawyers maintain the statement was coerced.
In it, Salman claimed she knew Mateen was headed to Pulse that night, and that they’d scouted the location together. But within a few days of the massacre, the government had reason to believe her statement was false. Based on data from their cell phones, neither Mateen or Salman had ever been in the vicinity of Pulse before. On the night of the attack, Mateen first went to Disney Springs and EVE Orlando ― both of which had heavy, visible security ― before ending up at Pulse after a Google search for “downtown Orlando nightclubs.” Notably, his search did not include the words “gay” or “LGBT.”
The evidence suggested it was a crime of opportunity, the location chosen at random. If Mateen didn’t know where he was going that night, how could his wife have known? How could she, in the words of the June 15, 2016, New York Post cover, “have saved them all”?
Prosecutors decided to pursue charges against Salman anyway, knowing full well that the statements she gave the FBI could not be corroborated. It was as if authorities were drawing up an indictment to fit the public’s conception of the crime, even if their strongest proof was at odds with other evidence they’d collected.
“[T]he agents had coerced Noor into agreeing that Omar Mateen had cased the Pulse and selected the nightclub as his target,” said Swift in an email, “and it was not in the government’s interest to contradict that narrative.”
Beyond the courtroom, the narrative had taken on a powerful dimension in Orlando. All over town, in bars and restaurants, you could see signs reading, “We will not let hate win.” During the trial, I spoke to one LGBT community leader there who said he would always know, in his heart, that Mateen picked Pulse to kill gay people, and that Salman knew of his plans. No amount of evidence would change his mind, he said.
Despite the thinness of the case against her, there was no public reckoning over whether the aggressive prosecution was warranted, or just. In my conversations with dozens of people in Orlando, I did not encounter a single person who thought Salman might be innocent.
In May of 2017, Jacquelyn Campbell, a leading expert on domestic violence who evaluated Salman at the request of her attorneys, confided in me that she was extremely concerned about the case, and wanted to make sure it was on my radar. But where was everyone else? Where were the sort of liberal pressure groups that normally could be counted on to bang the drum about domestic violence, Islamophobia, overzealous terror prosecutions?
There was an undeniable sadism in how the government went about its case. Salman had originally been granted bail by a magistrate judge in California, but prosecutors appealed, asking a federal judge to keep her behind bars. They pointed to her confession that she had scouted Pulse with her husband ― even though by this point they had strong evidence to the contrary ― as a sign she was a danger to society. At the time, Judge Paul Byron sided with the government and kept Salman imprisoned before her trial.
During the trial, when an FBI agent testified that he had determined “within days” of the massacre that Salman had never been in the vicinity of Pulse, based on her cell phone data, Byron stopped him.
You knew within days? he asked.
Yes, the agent responded.
Did you tell anyone?
Yes, the agent said.
Whom did you tell?
My superiors, the agent replied. Byron asked for their first and last names. Later, after excusing the jury, he asked prosecutors to explain themselves. Why had they misled him when they asked him to deny Salman bail?
“I’m very concerned by that,” Byron said. It seemed he had taken it personally. His decision on Salman’s bail, based in part on faulty information, was responsible for her long separation from her child. By the time of the verdict, Salman had spent 14 months in jail.
The judge’s scolding of the prosecution was perhaps the most dramatic moment in the trial. It suggested to those listening that the government’s tactics were shady and not to be trusted. It was something many of us in the courtroom, myself included, were already starting to suspect.
Between the lines, a different story from the government’s was being told in the courtroom, about a different sort of quintessentially American crime. “She was not his partner, she was not his peer, and she certainly was not his confidant,” one of Salman’s lawyers, Linda Moreno, said. Mateen was a domestic abuser who treated Salman with disrespect and violence. “Her only sin was that she married a monster,” she said.
Salman told her family that her husband had beat her. He raped her. He controlled her life. Her story was echoed by Mateen’s first wife, who said he physically assaulted and terrorized her during their short marriage.
Although Salman is now free, the human toll of the decision to prosecute her is very real. The trial itself was a kind of punishment.
For two weeks, Salman, who did not testify, sat in court with dark circles under her eyes, shifting nervously in her seat and speaking quietly to her lawyers. At least once, she was heard protesting that the FBI was lying. She listened as she was described by prosecutors as a cunning, callous woman who would go along with a plan of mass murder for a sparkly diamond ring, and by her defense team as a simple-minded dupe victimized by her philandering husband.
She missed things, important things, while she was locked up. Her grandmother died during jury selection for the trial; Salman did not get to say her goodbyes or attend the funeral. Most painfully, she was separated from her son for over a year, unable to hug or kiss him.
Salman’s acquittal was historic; the government rarely loses terrorism cases. But her victory hardly felt like one. Right away, it was circumscribed by the very jury that had set her free. In a statement sent to the Orlando Sentinel after the trial, the foreman of the jury said jurors suspected Salman knew her husband was planning something, even if she didn’t know the date or location.
After the verdict came in, Salman’s lawyers stood in front of the federal courthouse and berated the media ― the same media that had gotten the story so very wrong.
“A year and a half ago, you believed she dropped him off at Pulse!” Swift, one of Salman’s attorneys, said to the gaggle of reporters. “You believed they scouted Pulse!”
On the same steps, Salman’s uncle thanked the judge and jury, and said the family looked forward to getting Salman the best therapist money could afford. They just wanted to get her home to her son as soon as possible. Too much damage had already been done.