In the immediate aftermath of the Orlando massacre, some commentators have been quick to focus on the shooter's declaration of allegiance to ISIS. "Surely, this terrorist attack provides yet another example of a young Muslim man embracing radical Islam and murdering on its behalf," they argue. Perhaps, but considerable evidence suggests something else may have been at work.
Omar Mateen's ex-wife has spoken of his violent, erratic behavior, and family members have said he exhibited no signs of increased religious devotion, which often accompanies radicalization. He had also sworn allegiance to two diametrically opposed groups, Shi'a Hezbollah and Sunni ISIS. These behaviors suggest that his attack stemmed more from personal pathology than from radical Islamist ideology, which served as the lightning rod for the undifferentiated anger he focused on a Gay and Lesbian nightclub.
In many respects, Mateen's attack is reminiscent of that carried out by Anders Breivik. In 2011, The Norwegian extremist detonated a bomb outside government buildings in Oslo and then went on a shooting rampage at a youth camp, killing 77 people in the two attacks. He published a rambling manifesto extoling his hatred of Muslim immigrants.
The night club rampage also recalls the Oklahoma City bombing in which Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols blew up the Murrah Federal Building in April 1995, killing 168. McVeigh had an irrational fear of the government and was angry over the storming of the Branch Dravidian compound in Waco, Texas the year before.
All three men had several things in common. None of them was clinically diagnosed as mentally ill, but all three exhibited aberrant behavior that, by any reasonable standard, marked them as unstable. Each latched on to an extremist ideology that allowed him to focus his rage on an available target. All three showed no regard for human life.
Combating these lone wolves is much harder than fighting terrorist groups as such individuals often operate below the radar of law enforcement. Even when they draw the attention of authorities, as Mateen certainly did, their bizarre ideas often get them dismissed as harmless eccentrics.
The curious blend of mental instability and ideological conviction such people exhibit does, however, suggest how and how not to counter the threat they pose. Mateen's status as a natural U.S. citizen should put to rest the argument that immigrants pose a serious threat. McVeigh's worldview reminds us that radical Islam alone is not the problem, though it must be countered.
Unbalanced people will always exist, and they will always be able to find an extremist ideology to focus their discontent. However, they will be far less dangerous if we provide them the help they need and make it harder for them to get guns. Something as simple as a more thorough background check might have stopped Mateen buying an AR15. He certainly should not have been taken off the FBI watch list. Improved mental health services and community outreach programs might identify and assist unstable people before they become violent. Finally, we can all work to diminish the homophobia that makes Gays and Lesbians convenient scapegoats for the problems of the world.