America mourns worst mass shooting in history

Tears: The American eagle weeps over the LGBT rainbow flag

Yesterday 49 people were shot dead in a gay club in Florida. If it is the work of an Islamist extremist it will be the worst terror attack on US soil since September 11th 2001. What next?

It was a hot night at Pulse in Orlando. The city’s largest gay club was hosting a Latin-themed event. At around 2am on Sunday morning almost 300 people were talking, dancing and making merry. Then the shooting started.

‘We were by the hip-hop area when I heard shots, bam, bam, bam, and the only thing I could think of was to duck, but I ran out instead,’ said 19-year-old Joel Figueroa. ‘Everybody was screaming and running toward the front door.’

It was chaos. The attacker was Omar Mateen, a 29-year-old who earlier that night had declared allegiance to Islamic State (IS) to a 911 (ie, emergency) operator. An off-duty policeman began to shoot back at Mateen, who was armed with an assault rifle and a handgun. It was clear he was ‘organised and well prepared.’

Some, like Joel, managed to escape. Others locked themselves in the bathroom and frantically called the police and their loved ones. Three hours later the police used grenades and an armoured vehicle to storm the building, rescuing ‘at least 30’ hostages.

Mateen was killed. But not before he had slaughtered 49 people and injured 53 more. It was the deadliest mass shooting in US history.

It was also a terrorist attack. It is not yet clear if Mateen had any direct contact with IS, but accounts linked to the group quickly began gloating about the deaths on social media. In the past, it has deliberately encouraged ‘lone wolf’ attacks on Europe and the USA — particularly during Ramadan.

America has responded with solidarity to the victims and the LGBT community. An ‘attack on any American, regardless of race, ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation, is an attack on all of us,’ said President Obama at the White House on Sunday afternoon. Eight hundred miles away in Orlando, rainbow-clad citizens lined up to give blood for the victims.

‘We are a people who love,’ said a gay city official. ‘We’re going to show you what the good heart of humanity is.’

Radical solutions

Control guns now, say US activists. America’s obsession with firearms puts all of its citizens in danger; it has more privately-owned guns than any other country, at around 300m. It also has the most mass shootings. Congress has the power to change this, said Obama yesterday. ‘To actively do nothing is a decision.’

But many politicians are more focused on the person behind the trigger. Florida senator Marco Rubio called attackers like Mateen ‘the new face of the war on terror’: they are difficult to predict, and go for ‘soft targets’ like the Bataclan in Paris, or the community centre in San Bernardino. ‘When will this stop?’ asked Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump. ‘When will we get tough, smart and vigilant?’

You Decide

  1. How should the US people respond to Orlando attacks?
  2. Are America’s gun laws to blame for its mass shootings?

Activities

  1. Write a letter to the people of Orlando, expressing your sympathy and advice at this difficult time.
  2. Imagine it is your job to advise President Obama on national security. Using the final link under Become An Expert, produce a short briefing on ‘lone wolf’ terrorism, explaining its roots and possible solutions.

Some People Say...

“No act of hate or terror will ever change who we are.”

Barack Obama

What do you think?

Q & A

This is horrifying.
Indeed. Lone attacks can be particularly scary because they are so hard to predict, unlike larger-scale plans which are usually thwarted by intelligence agencies in time. But it is important to remember that they are still very rare, both in the USA and Europe. It is extremely unlikely that you or anyone you know would be caught up in one.
Why was a gay club attacked?
It does seem likely that the LGBT community was targeted specifically; the suspect’s father told NBC News that his son had been ‘very angry’ when he saw two men kissing in Miami. But there are more symbolic reasons than the personal homophobia: it is Pride month in the USA, and for many religious extremists, the progress of LGBT equality is a symbol of the liberal values they detest.

Word Watch

Mass shooting
Orlando has overtaken the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007 which killed 32 people. There is no official definition of ‘mass shooting’ in the USA, but the FBI says that incidents where people are killed randomly in public places (also called ‘active shootings’) are becoming more common. Of the 12 deadliest shootings in US history, at least half happened after 2007.
Ramadan
The Islamic holy month has been a time of increased violence from extremist organisations like IS in the past. American Muslim leaders strongly condemned the Orlando attacks.
300m
This is according to official figures. It means there is roughly one gun for every person in America, although they are owned by around one third of the population.
Bataclan
The theatre in Paris where 90 people were killed in November 2015 during a rock concert on a Friday night. The incident was one of several terrorist incidents in the city that same night.
San Bernardino
A city in California where a husband and wife shot and killed 14 people in December 2015. The couple had pledged allegiance to IS before the incident.

Subjects

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