Following the acquittal of Noor Salman, the wife of Pulse gunman Omar Mateen, there’s been a flurry of coverage revisiting Mateen’s 2016 massacre of 49 people at the gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. The key takeaways: that Salman, who had been charged with obstruction of justice and aiding and abetting Mateen, had not helped him plan the attack; and that the FBI’s handling of her case was embarrassingly shoddy—a shoddiness that kept her unjustly imprisoned and away from her children for 14 months. Though jurors indicated after the verdict that they felt Salman probably knew Mateen was planning something, they agreed there was not enough evidence to convict her on the specific charges in question.
It’s incredibly upsetting to learn that Salman—who one reporter described as both a victim of sustained domestic abuse and cognitively challenged—suffered so terribly at the hands of the justice system. What’s not helpful is framing that story in terms like these: “Everyone Got The Pulse Massacre Story Completely Wrong.”
That’s the headline of an article by Mellssa Jeltsen, published Wednesday in HuffPost, which attempts to connect the view that the Pulse attack was a homophobic hate crime to the separate question of Salman’s subjection to prosecutorial overreach and FBI malpractice. Jeltsen’s reporting on the trial appears solid, and her concern over the public and media’s lack of concern for Salman is well-taken. It’s her theory regarding that lack of concern that rings so false: “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.”
In paragraphs that sometimes feel like they’ve been intercalated from another piece, she argues that basically everyone believed Mateen’s attack was a pre-meditated hate crime against LGBTQ people; that homophobia was clearly not the killer’s motive; and that progressive sensitivity around the wound Pulse represented for the queer community served to preoccupy those who might have otherwise advocated on Salman’s behalf. “Where were the sort of liberal pressure groups,” Jeltsen asks, “that normally could be counted on to bang the drum about domestic violence, Islamophobia, overzealous terror prosecutions?” Kept home by the misapplied label “hate crime,” is her answer.
There are a few problems with this logic. For starters, it’s just not true that a narrative of clear-cut homophobia on Mateen’s part was taken as gospel. I reported on the ground in Orlando in the week after the attack, and even then, gay people were ambivalent about (or even indifferent to) Mateen’s motivations. Some folks believed the stories that Mateen was a closeted gay man and even a Pulse regular (and thus acting out of self-hatred), while others viewed him as mentally ill or a terrorist or some combination thereof. Media coverage in the weeks after the massacre echoed this mix of views—if anything, I recall reading more pieces skeptical of the secret male lovers and Grindr messages than stories that presented those rumors as facts. Surely a segment of the population believed that Mateen set out that night to kill some gays, but a range of theories and interpretations were (and still are!) in circulation. I don’t think it’s fair to say that “we” got anything wrong because I don’t buy that “we” believed any one theory about why Mateen did what he did. Indeed, that uncertainty is part of what made the Pulse massacre so horrifying.
Jeltsen seems to have latched on to the fact that many queer people used the term “hate crime” in the aftermath of the attack. She is correct to point out that the Pulse killing did not meet federal or state standards for that designation due to a lack of direct evidence regarding Mateen’s motivations—it seems more likely than not that he chose the nightclub as a target at random, and investigators apparently found no hard evidence of anti-LGBTQ sentiment on Mateen’s part. But writers like the Daily Beast’s Tim Teeman, who Jeltsen cites as advancing the “wrong” interpretation, were largely using “hate crime” in a functional sense, and specifically in response to a galling trend among some politicians and media organizations to ignore or willfully erase the fact that Pulse was a gay bar, and that it was queer (and Latino) people, specifically, who were dead. It’s fair to argue that precision around this term and its implication of intent would be ideal, but in this case I’m comfortable with community impact outweighing technicalities.
It’s also worth noting that we can’t say for sure that homophobia wasn’t in the mix of what motivated Mateen. Jeltsen herself acknowledges he might have been bigoted, referencing his love of gay-murdering ISIS and his father’s infamous comment about Mateen’s being angered by seeing two men kissing. But she demotes this possibility in favor of his own ISIS-focused statements, and accepts investigator testimony that Mateen wasn’t a closet case and didn’t know what sort of place Pulse was.
But even if Jeltsen is totally right about Mateen’s psychology, there is more than one way of reading a detail like this: “A security guard recalled Mateen asking where all the women were, apparently in earnest, in the minutes before he began his slaughter.” Jeltsen sees this as evidence of Mateen’s ignorance about where he was; I believe it’s possible he was making a nervous joke and may have realized he’d hit the jackpot before continuing apace. Both views involve a certain amount of speculation.
I have never much cared about why Mateen attacked Pulse, and I made a point of not centering that question in my own coverage. He didn’t deserve the attention. It was always clear enough to me that, for one reason or another, he hated the kind of people I love—people who, at the very least, dance and celebrate and go to nightclubs. Even if he didn’t plan it that way, I am sure he would not regret that his 49 victims were largely queer.
What we should regret is that Salman seems to have been unfairly prosecuted. But the “obscuring” of her case, as Jeltsen puts it, is not the fault of those who view Mateen as a bigot. Indeed, most of us, in the same rallies and articles condemning the murderer, insisted on warning against the Islamophobia that Jeltsen suggests may have inflected the case. What happened here seems sadly banal: Authorities acted badly, the news cycle lost interest, activists moved on to more pressing concerns, and the justice system took too long to produce a just outcome. It’s uncomfortable and unsatisfying to realize there’s no single explanation for the harm inflicted on Noor Salman. For those of us still mourning what happened at Pulse, that’s a familiar feeling.