Whenever a person commits the unthinkable, our impulse is to try to understand. How, we wonder, did this come to pass?
Today, social media is a common place to begin our investigation. When we want to get to know someone, we look them up online. In Omar Mateen’s case, the picture is relatively opaque. At first, it appeared he wasn’t an active contributor to social media, besides a few old (pre-front-facing camera) selfies on MySpace. He wasn’t part of a social network except for Jack’d, a gay hookup app. One of his few actions, days before the rampage, was to send a friend request to Micah Bass, owner of a large gay club in Florida. Bass assumed it was in error and deleted it. (New information from the Senate Homeland Security Committee suggests that Mateen might have had multiple Facebook accounts, even posting from one of them during the massacre.) Mateen’s social media absence aligned with reports from family members describing him as “a private person.”
Without a sense for his digital personhood, journalists turned to his father Seddique. Seddique, who has a robust social media presence, was not involved with his son’s shooting spree. Yet reporters sifted through his online persona for clues about Omar’s childhood and family. On Facebook, Seddique shares about 10 posts per day publicly. They are usually about Afghan politics. (Seddique seems to imagine himself to be an astute political analyst.) His YouTube channel contains a single video uploaded over a year ago featuring an hour-long monologue wherein he declares he wants to be president of Afghanistan. The video originally aired on an obscure California-based satellite channel called Payam-e-Afghan and Seddique paid for the airtime himself.
It’s tempting to cobble these disjointed Facebook posts into a concrete narrative about Mateen and his family. For one thing, in the hours after a tragedy, journalists scramble to report information about the attackers as quickly as possible. Sifting through Facebook and Twitter is faster than tracking down friends and family. It can also feel more authentic — it seems like we’re presenting an unfiltered snapshot of a person, rather than a picture painted by others. And social media, with its easily digestible tidbits, make it easy to formulate analysis at a time when everyone is looking for answers.
But we should resist the urge. Someone’s social media offers, at best, a curated insight into who we are. It’s impossible to know Mateen or his father by looking at their Facebook activity, just as it’s impossible to know any of us from our socially mediated selves. (There’s also a risk of mis-identifying an attacker using social media, as happened to Ryan Lanza, brother of Sandy Hook shooter Adam Lanza.)
I don’t know who Mateen thought he was. I have only seen seen the few photos he posted of his reflection in a mirror. Social media researchers argue that people take selfies to understand and proclaim their identity within the human community. A Luddite friend of mine mistakenly referred to selfies as “lonelies.” It was a comical slip but perhaps a more accurate term. When I look at the photos of Mateen’s reflection in the mirror, I see a lonely. Social theorists argue that loneliness, marginalization, and a desire for identity can lead to self-radicalization.
But I do know that during crisis our instinct is to restore social order as quickly as possible. Cherry-picking information from Facebook makes is easy for us to “other” these attackers, to paint them as people we can’t possibly understand. We’ve taken this train before. The Matthew Shepard murderers were drug-addicted dropouts. The Columbine killers wore trench coats and listened to heavy metal. The Sandy Hook shooter was a deranged psychopath. The Colorado Springs gunman was an evangelical lunatic. And apparently Mateen used steroids and was expelled from high school for fighting. None of them are like us. The more monstrous they are, the less we identify with them.
Dehumanizing Mateen and other perpetrators of horrific violence allows us to believe these types of incidents will never happen again. So far this method hasn’t worked. Instead, we must achieve a collective consciousness that accounts for even the most heinous of human behavior, stretching our moral imagination until we see ourselves in the other. During his recent trip to Hiroshima, President Obama said “those who died, they are like us.” To that, I would add the important and unsettling reminder that we were the ones who dropped the bomb. It’s time for us to take a selfie in the mirror.