America in a Time of War: Interpreting Orlando

FBI agents investigate near the damaged rear wall of the Pulse nightclub where a gunman killed at least 50 people on June 12, 2016, in Orlando, Florida. (Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)


 Dr. Christopher McIntosh, Bard College

As the recent events in Orlando recede into the past—a vicious attack on a nightclub by an individual who pledged “allegiance to ISIS”—the “reaction” to the attack has taken on outsized importance.[1]  Details continue to come out about what actually happened and why, but some things are clear. The assailant was an American citizen who had been investigated by the FBI for suspected ties to terrorist groups.  The place of attack was chosen well in advance and was known as a space supportive of the queer and LGBT community and particularly for queer Latinx.  The weapon of choice was an AR-15, the same weapon used in mass shootings throughout the United States including San Bernardino and Aurora.

The overall interpretation and framing of the event that dominates politically and in the minds of policymakers is that this was a terrorist attack against the United States.  While an instance of “homegrown” terrorism and not “ISIS-directed”, it has become politically accepted that the attacker was “radicalized” and thus that Orlando was a similar event to previous attacks in California, the shooting at Fort Hood, and the Boston marathon bombing.[2]  Relatively quickly, the attack has been framed as part of the war on terrorism—an exceptional event emblematic of a United States at war and not something one could reasonably expect to occur in America during a time of peace.  It’s telling, for instance, that as this blog post was being written Democrats staged a “sit-in” to protest Congressional inaction on gun control, focusing primarily on the narrow intersection of access to assault rifles for suspected terrorists rather than more general gun control issues.

How we understand what happened that horrific night in Orlando is a deeply political question that cannot be resolved by uncovering the “facts” of the case.  As the “facts” continue to emerge it is becoming increasingly clear that a single, clear motivation or intended goal may not even exist.  The attack now functions politically as an event, an act of violence that despite its indisputably physical and emotional characteristics, exists primarily as a question of interpretation[3]: was it an act of political violence?[4] A terrorist attack?[5] A hate crime? An expression of toxic masculinity?[6] The actions of a “deranged” individual?[7] Something else entirely? What is crucially important to recognize, however, is that who gets to ask and answer these questions shapes and constrains the actions that are thinkable in response—even, and I would argue especially, when it comes to those responses that enact violence.  How a problem is conceptualized politically largely determines the appropriate potential solutions.[8]

The relationship this has to the notion of victory and the ending of wars is that it reveals just how much ideas central to our concept of war possess a deep liminality at their core.[9]  While these are inevitable concerns in sovereign representations of “wartime” as a political space separate from “peace-time”, it becomes even more visible in the context of an ongoing war with groups the US defines as terrorist.  Seemingly easily answerable questions like when a war ends, when it begins, what it means to “defeat” an enemy[10] or alternatively, to lose to that enemy,[11] rely heavily upon matters of interpretation rather than metrics that are physical, material, or in any way beyond political dispute and contestation.  The case of a war with terrorism has shown just how extraordinarily difficult it can be to even identify what is and is not an “act of war” by either side.  In the case of Orlando, the act is indisputably violent, dramatic, widespread in its effect, and publicly declared via official channels as intended to be in support of a broader campaign, yet it still remains a site of contestation and subject to enframing by dominant political discourse.[12]

From early on in the war on terrorism, Judith Butler identified the importance of the idea of the “frame” when thinking about political violence in the contemporary moment, going on to develop concepts critical to thinking through violence today such as the grievability of life and the precarity of bodies as bases for building normative claims regarding violence and how one can resist it.[13]  For Butler, “frames of war” are “the ways of selectively carving up experience as essential to the conduct of war. Such frames do not merely reflect on the material conditions of war, but are essential to the perpetually crafted animus of that material reality”. Anticipating some of the linkages exposed by the incident in Orlando, she argues that “even as the war is framed in certain ways to control and heighten affect in relation to the different grievability of lives, so war has come to frame ways of thinking multiculturalism and debates on sexual freedom, issues largely considered separate from ‘foreign affairs’”.[14] Focusing on how we frame an issue enables us to see what responses we will find appropriate and can expose linkages we may not anticipate otherwise. In the case of questions of terrorism and war, this includes which bodies are valued, which can be sacrificed, and which are excluded entirely from moral and political calculations.

At a concrete level, framing Orlando as a terrorist attack in the American political sphere has the potential to create very specific implications for US security politics.  For policymakers, it provides clear and cogent evidence that the war on terrorism is ongoing and must continue by demonstrating that attacks on the American homeland are not something to be anticipated, but are already occurring.  Orlando becomes yet another step in the narrative of an increasing spiral of violence from “radicalized” individuals influenced by ISIS and other similar groups that are “anti-American”.[15]  As well, it offers a justification for the continuation and escalation of violence against the groups that supposedly influenced the attack. The warrant for heightened attacks against groups like ISIS grows as the threat appears to escalate.  Targeted killing, intervention through drone strikes,[16] even escalation to boots on the ground appears increasingly possible as the threat gets closer to home. Third, it provides a new casus belli—scholars writing in queer and trans- theory have followed Michelle Ferguson’s (as well as others’) observation that feminist goals were coopted as justification for the occupation of Afghanistan to argue that similar possibilities exist with queer and LGBT rights, a process they identify as “pinkwashing”, where states use the protection of “gay rights” as political cover for militaristic actions.[17]  This perhaps once abstract possibility now appears very real.  The likely next president of the United States, Hillary Clinton, is a former Secretary of State whose time in office was known primarily for elevating “gay rights” to the level of human rights and for her hawkish stance on humanitarian intervention.[18]  One can already see the rhetoric justifying US engagements with ISIS starting to shift toward more humanitarian concerns—genocide against Yazidis and Christians, the treatment of women, war crimes, coerced sharia law, even presidential declarations that they constitute an “apocalyptic cult”.  Clinton herself has already incorporated ISIS’ treatment of queer and LGBT individuals into her statements as evidence of the importance of continuing to fight these groups.[19]

Unifying all this is a political terrain currently defined by wartime, but absent a time of war, one could imagine a very different narrative.  For example, absent a terrain constituted by war with terrorism, the narrative of the event could exclude terrorism entirely and focus on it as an incident that exposes normalized attitudes regarding the political acceptability of gun violence, anti-LGBTQ views, masculinism, anti-Latinx views or even another issue entirely.  It could also be seen as the actions of a single individual, wholly separate from questions of politics.  The most important aspect of these potential alternative frames is that they each expose the dangers of violence that exist during peace-time and are not necessarily exceptional occurrences limited to time-bound threats that are eliminated by victories in war.[20]

Even if it remained framed as a terrorist incident, one could still imagine a very different understanding of the attacks if the US were not facing a “continuing, imminent” threat that must be “defeated” via victory in war.[21]  While impossible at this moment, one could imagine policymakers successfully articulating this incident as part of a broader narrative where the attack is an unfortunate exception, reinforcing the idea that the US is now in a time of peace.  In this interpretation, policymakers could argue Al Qaeda is now largely out of the picture, having been replaced by ISIS in terms of threats to the US.  As a result of US actions domestically and abroad the attack could be seen as proving ISIS does not have access to the United States homeland—the attacker was an American citizen—nor do they have operational control over these “wannabe terrorists”.  With this narrative, they could also argue that it proves ISIS can’t even access US grenades or other basic explosives in any serious way, thus the turn to guns—access to which are protected by the Constitution.  In other words, it could be articulated as evidence that we had successfully realized a situation where, as Kerry put it in 2004


“terrorists are not the focus of our lives, but they’re a nuisance. As a former law-enforcement person, I know we’re never going to end prostitution. We’re never going to end illegal gambling. But we’re going to reduce it, organized crime, to a level where it isn’t on the rise. It isn’t threatening people’s lives every day, and fundamentally, it’s something that you continue to fight, but it’s not threatening the fabric of your life.”[22]


When framed as a war—as the last two administrations have chosen to do and regardless of who wins the next election is likely to continue—the enemy must be fought until there is defeat.  Wars are won or lost, are never treated as a “nuisance”, and dominate and shape American political discourse regarding security.[23]

The indefinite maintenance and political prominence of this frame means that events like Orlando are likely to remain politically incorporated into this discourse of wartime for the indefinite future.  The result is that it tilts the balance in favor of responses that are violent, direct, and focused on short term gains.  It ultimately precludes the possibility of shifting to understandings of terrorism that predate the war on terror which saw terrorism as one issue to be balanced among many, like crime or illegal gambling.  Many scholars have pointed out the massive disconnect between the lethality of terrorism in the United States and the resources outlaid to combat it, noting in particular the opportunity costs that exist in terms of other issues that could be addressed with those resources.[24]  Such resources could instead be directed toward the issues that appear equally likely to have influenced and motivated the attacker—issues that are structural, broad-based, and societally supported.  In other words, issues that are distinctly not exceptional events and constitute the status quo of American politics during peace-time.[25]

The ultimate lesson that the awful violence in Orlando itself reveals—independent of the question of its incorporation into the war on terrorism—is that broader political frames that did not emerge with the attacks in 2001 remain powerful.  Ongoing violence, notions of masculinity defined by dominance and control, a singularly permissive approach to guns, and the marginalization of the queer and LGBT community, as well as the Latinx community, all remain prominent features of American politics.  Remove ISIS as motivation and the war on terrorism entirely and one could reasonably expect the same event to occur.  As a result, there is a lingering sadness facing those Americans lucky enough not to be personally affected by the tragic and horrific deaths in Orlando and it is not because they confirmed some sort of imminent threat facing the United States.  The attack itself didn’t even originate from an external actor, but was (an) America(n) turning violence back against itself.  In doing so, rather than operating as an exceptional moment of “wartime”, the attack demonstrates shared norms and ideas so deeply rooted that they can only be considered normalized aspects of peacetime at this point.  When framed as terrorism, the attack seems singular, unacceptable, and something to unite against—as in Clinton’s call for the “spirit of 9/12” where politicians and citizens unite in common cause against those who threaten us. By working together temporarily, it is assumed, we will reach a point in time where “this” can be put in the past and “peacetime” can be restored.  Unfortunately, one can also frame the attack as the inevitable manifestation of a society that has normalized marginalizing individuals based on their identity, armed its citizens with military weapons, and openly called for the violent resolution of conflict.  Whether the US wins or loses the war on terror, events like the attack in Orlando (or San Bernardino, or Charleston) are unlikely to disappear—the only thing victory is likely to bring is a different frame with which we view it.

[1] Spencer Ackerman, “Omar Mateen described himself as ‘Islamic soldier’ in 911 calls to police” The Guardian, June 20, 2016.

[2] On the dubious theory of ‘radicalization’ as related to the Boston bombings, see Masha Gessen, The Brothers: The Road to an American Tragedy (New York: Riverhead, 2015), 113-116, 234-35.

[3] Tom Lundborg, Politics of the Event: Time, Movement, Becoming (London: Routledge, 2012).

[4] Jeet Heer, “The Orlando Massacre is an Act of Terror, Whatever the Tangle of Causes” New Republic, June 12, 2016.

[5] Brian McBride and Michael Edison Hayden, “Orlando Gay Nightclub Massacre a Hate Crime, and an Act of Terror, FBI Says” ABC News, June 15, 2016.

[6] Amanda Marcotte, “Overcompensation Nation: It’s Time to Admit that Toxic Masculinity Drives Gun Violence”, June 13, 2016 and Katherine Timpf, “Planned Parenthood Outreach Group Blames Orlando Attack on ‘Toxic Masculinity’” National Review Online, June 13, 2006.

[7] Earl Ofari Hutchinson, “Why Trump (and Others) Call the Orlando Shooter an ISIS Terrorist when he’s as American as Him” Huffington Post, June 15, 2016

[8] Robert Cox, “Social forces, states, and world orders: Beyond International Relations Theory” in Robert Keohane, ed. Neorealism and Its Critics. (New York, NY: Columbia University, 1986).

[9] Critical War Studies scholars demonstrate that much like the idea of terrorism, the conception of war is a political representation whose ontology is not material, but a product of particular social constructs and presents. Caroline Holmqvist, “Undoing War: War Ontologies and the Materiality of Drone Warfare.” Millennium-Journal of International Studies 41.3 (2013): 535-552.



[12] Drone strikes are considered acts of war in some circumstances, but not others. For instance, the raid that resulted in the death of Osama bin Laden was not officially authorized by the government of Pakistan, which under many concepts of international law constitutes it as not only an act of war, but an act of war against Pakistan—ostensibly an American ally in this conflict.

[13] Judith Butler, Frames of War (Verso: London, 2008), Judith Butler Precarious Life (Verso: London, 2004), Nancy Ettlinger, “Precarity Unbound” “Precarity Unbound,” Alternatives: Global, Local, Political 2007 32(3): 319-340.

[14] Butler 2008, 26

[15] Ed Pilkington and Dan Roberts, “FBI and Obama Confirm Omar Mateen was Radicalized on the Internet”, The Guardian June 14, 2016.


[17] Michaele L. Ferguson, “Feminism and Security Rhetoric in the Post-9/11 Bush Administration,” in W Stands for Women (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007) ed. Michaele L. Ferguson and Lori Marso, 221-244, Jasbir Puar, “Monster, Terrorist, Fag: The War on Terrorism and the Production of Docile Patriots” Social Text, 2007 20: 117-148, and Dean Spade and Craig Willse, “Sex, Gender, and War in an Age of Multicultural Imperialism.” QED: A Journal in GLBTQ Worldmaking 2014 1(1): 5-29.

[18] Barbara Crossette and Bob Dreyfuss, “Hillary Clinton at the State Department: Hawk or Humanitarian?” The Nation, June 5, 2012.

[19] Byron Tau, “Obama Calls ISIS a ‘Vicious Death Cult’ at National Prayer Breakfast”, The Wall Street Journal, February 5th, 2015 and “’Americans Need to Stand Together’: Hillary Clinton’s Remarks Following the Orlando Shooting”, Washington Post, June 13, 2016.

[20] For example, as evidence continues to emerge the FBI is currently investigating a possibility that this was a personal attack, motivated by specific grievances the attacker had against individuals and groups that frequented the club, making this potentially more of a personal act of violence than part of a terrorist campaign.

[21] The National Security Strategy of the United States of America. (2015) Washington: White House.

[22] Quoted in Corey Robin, “The Politics of Fear: Symposium” Democracy Journal, l Fall 2011, 22.

[23] Mary Dudziak, Wartime: An Idea, Its History, Its Consequences (New York: Oxford, 2012).

[24] John Mueller, Overblown: How Politicians and the Terrorism Industry Inflate National Security Threats, and Why We Believe Them (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2006).

[25] Even if one remains focused on defeating these groups, strategically speaking, there are also opportunity costs, as remaining in a state of wartime makes non-military focused solutions less effective and increasingly difficult to achieve, such as law enforcement, intelligence, and new efforts to “counter violent extremism” through messaging and social presence. See Christopher McIntosh, “Counterterrorism as War: Identifying the Dangers, Risks, and Opportunity Costs of US Strategy Toward Al Qaeda and Its Affiliates.” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 38.1 (2015): 23-38.

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