Working On A Theory About Orlando

June 27, 2016

Among so many other lessons to be learned from the mid-June mass-murder shooting at Pulse, the Orlando LGBT club, is a caution against locking ourselves into assumptions and conclusions before enough information is gathered and known. Now that a few weeks have passed since the horrific event, and the initial furor has cooled off a bit, we can more easily see where some of those early assumptions and conclusions wrong.

 Many—including Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump—shut off all further analysis once they learned that the lone American-born shooter was a practicing Muslim, had an Arabic name—Omar Mir Seddique Mateen—and that he had both identified himself as an "Islamic soldier" and pledged his allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (commonly known as either ISIS or ISIL) in 911 calls he made in the midst of the shootings. From that moment on, many declared the Orlando massacre to be an act of "radical Islamic international terrorism."

 In addition, many of our more conservative friends concluded that the tragedy might have been averted had there been either "some" or "more" armed security inside the club itself.

 Of course, there was always an alternate theory that the American-born Mateen was less motivated by radical Muslim theory than he was by traditional American-bred homophobia. And within a day or so of the shooting, evidence emerged—though it has still been not been fully substantiated—that he may have been a self-hating gay, and that the public allegiance to ISIL might have merely been a way to paste on a higher motivation to the shooting and cover up conflicted feelings about his own sexuality.

 In addition, timelines released by several news outlets showed that an armed off-duty Orlando police officer was working at the club, and engaged in a shootout with Mr. Mateen before Mateen entered the nightclub, and that two on-duty officers entered the club within minutes and exchanged gunfire with the shooter, forcing him to retreat to a bathroom.

 But even though some of this information was available within hours of the first reports of the Orlando gay nightclub shooting, it was ignored in many minds because it included facts that conflicted with convenient conclusions already drawn.

 Jumping to conclusions has probably been one of humanity's favorite pastimes since we first came upon this earth. But that human tendency has escalated in American life especially—on both the left and the right—since the rise of social media as our primary news-gathering medium and national discussion forum. This is in part because if one doesn't enter into the conversation early, and with a strong opinion one way or another, the conversation rapidly passes you by. Two weeks, a provocative tweet Facebook post about the Pulse shootings would have gotten you scores, and perhaps hundreds, of replies. Post something about the shootings now and you may get a small discussion, but more likely you'll generate no more than a reply or two and then silence, as most people have moved on to new things.

 Another incentive for drawing an early conclusion is that it relieves one of the responsibility of thinking through what to do about something that has disturbed you. Pick a pre-determined cause, and along with it comes a pre-determined set of actions or attitudes to take in response. In the first few hours following the 1995 bombing of the Oklahoma City Federal Building, for example, popular opinion in America had labeled it an act of foreign-inspired Arab/Islamic terrorism. I recall that after Timothy McVeigh, a young white American Army veteran, was captured and identified as the bomber, one of the national news outlets interviewed a somewhat befuddled older white woman, asking her about her reaction to the McVeigh arrest. " I don't know what to think, I'm all confused," she replied. "Now I don't know who I'm supposed to hate."

 But such confusionment—if that be a proper word—does not have to be. Some years ago, while I was a reporter for Metro weekly newspaper in San Jose, I was assigned to a story that demonstrated to me both the value of waiting before concluding and both a way to bring it about.

 Late one weekend night in the winter of 1998, the African-American head of the San Jose State University Black Student Union was discovered lying unconscious in a deserted open-air hallway in an off-campus housing complex, having suffered a severe head injury from a possible assault while talking on a pay telephone. Lakim Washington was a militant and highly vocal leader for Black student rights on the SJSU campus, and had clashed with university administration officials and with a number of white students, including his two white roommates, in the months prior to the assault.

 Within hours, leaders of the San Jose State BSU charged that Washington had been the victim of a racially-motivated attack. Although there were no known witnesses to the attack, and Washington himself could give no information because he fell immediately into a coma, my editors at Metro believed the charge. I believed the charge, and was assigned the story, essentially, to provide evidence that it was true.

 The problem was, as hard as I tried, I could find no such evidence. No witnesses came forward. Washington came out of the coma, but reportedly could not remember anything about the attack, and his family would not allow reporters to interview him in the hospital where he was recovering. In addition, representatives of the university police began spreading the story that there had been no attack at all, but that Washington had hit his head on the concrete walkway after suffering an epileptic fit, even though he'd had no prior history of epilepsy.

 Eventually I turned in a story that presented the Washington assault as an unsolved mystery where a racial attack had been charged but not proved, and which the university police seemed reluctant to investigate. A few days after the article was published  ("Violent Night" Metro newspaper, January 22, 1998), a young woman read it, called the police,  and reported she had information that Washington had actually been assaulted by her boyfriend, an African-American, after the two men had argued over the use of the telephone. In other words, despite the early and "obvious" conclusion of a racial component by so many people, including myself, race had absolutely nothing to do with the assault.

 In other words, despite all the first assumptions by so many people—myself, my editors, and members of the SJSU BSU—after first hearing about the Lakim Washington assault, there had been no racial component to that incident.

 It was during the Lakim Washington investigation and story that I began to formulate guidelines for guarding against such premature conclusions.

 First, work from a "working theory" rather than a conclusion when you don't have enough facts in hand about a particular situation. This is more than just semantics. A conclusion demands defending and is difficult to change because you have committed yourself to it, even when the actual facts eventually prove otherwise. A working theory is just that, a theory. It is presented as a possibility, not as an established truth, is not necessary to defend, and is more easily modified if need be.

 Second, continue to collect facts and modify your theory as necessary as new facts are presented.

 Finally, use any newly-discovered facts to try to disprove your working theory, rather than trying to prove it. When you try to prove a theory—or a conclusion—you tend to ignore everything that disproves it. But if you work to disprove your original theory, it is easier to see the flaws in it and modify that theory or abandon it altogether, if necessary. On the other hand, if you honestly try to disprove your working theory and find you cannot, it makes it more likely that your original theory was correct.

 Using this formula, one could generally start off with the theory that given America's history, any situation involving more than one race in this country is likely to have race as one of its factors, to a greater or lesser extent. But after that, all other possible factors should be taken into account to see if their presence might, in fact, disprove the theory of a racial cause.

 Using this method of theorize-and-attempt-to-disprove, its' entirely possible to conclude that there are not enough proven facts available about the Orlando gay nightclub shooting to draw a definite conclusion. It's still possible that Mr. Mateen's actions were inspired by his fundamentalist Islamic religious beliefs and the actions of such terrorist organizations as ISIL. It is also possible that either American-born homophobia or shame-of-being-closeted-gay were the determining factors. And it is possible that the ultimate cause was some combination of these factors or others yet unknown. But it's important to realize that such uncertainty is okay. One ought to be careful not to jump unless one knows where the danger is coming from and which location it is traveling to, lest one ends up jumping directly in its path.

 Meanwhile, there's no magic to this method of working through our original theories. Much work has to be done to make it work, in almost every instance. Additional facts have to be ferreted out, sorted and resorted, and retheorized. We often have to throw out our most treasured prejudices. Sticking with pre-conceived notions is far, far easier on the mind, in the short run. In the long run, however, disaster can easily follow if the myths we have manufactured in our heads do not agree with the reality we face in the actual world.

 That's my working theory, anyways.