Commentary Magazine

Epistemic Closure Makes a Comeback

(AP Photo/Bullit Marquez)

On Thursday, some on the left made the kind of profound discovery that only they could—the kind that is neither profound nor a discovery. Upon perusing the Huffington Post, center-left consumers of opinion and analysis discovered that the perpetrator of a 2016 massacre of gay men in Florida, Omar Mateen, was not, in fact, a repressed homosexual.

The Huffington Post article by Melissa Jeltsen reviewed courtroom proceedings and revealed that Mateen had never been to the gay nightclub he targeted before his attack. Indeed, he had only searched online for “downtown Orlando nightclub” approximately an hour before the shooting. “It is not clear he even knew it was a gay bar,” Jeltsen noted. The Pulse nightclub was not Mateen’s original target; “it was the Disney Springs shopping and entertainment complex,” the reporter noted. That’s right; the Walt Disney World Resort. Security at the resort was substantial enough that it scared Mateen off at the last second, forcing him to improvise a new target. You see, Mateen supported ISIS, and his objective was to kill civilians. While he was reportedly disturbed by homosexuality, this shooter’s motives were clear.

You might be asking now why anyone would find this revelatory. It isn’t exactly news that Mateen was an aspiring Islamist militant. Yet you might be surprised.

“This article makes a convincing case that I (and others) were wrong to portray the Pulse massacre as being motivated by homophobia,” the New Republic’s Jeet Heer confessed above a link to Jeltsen’s piece. “It now appears that the attack on Pulse nightclub was more Islamist and less homophobic than we thought,” Harvard University lecturer Yascha Mounk remarked, though he reserved the right to revert back to a comfortable old bias about Mateen’s repression if the opportunity presented itself.

The article’s headline even insists that “everyone got the Pulse massacre story completely wrong,” and Huffington Post’s headline writers surely believed that to be true. As recently March 6, the LGBT-interest magazine Advocate attacked Mateen’s widow, Noor Salman, for “defying evidence” by claiming in court that homophobia did not motivate the Pulse shooter. In fact, Salman seems to have been the victim of a malicious persecution. She was held in custody for 14 months while prosecutors tried to charge her as an accomplice and misled the presiding judge about the facts of her case in the process.

How could this happen? How could these and many other astute observers of politics and current events become so wedded to a flimsy narrative and stay married to it for nearly two years? The notion that Mateen was a conflicted and closeted gay man appears to have originated from reporting by MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, who spoke to an Orlando man who claimed in the massacre’s immediate aftermath that he recognized Mateen from gay-dating apps.

Within hours of the shooting, however, reports indicated that Mateen called 911, pledged his allegiance to the Islamic State, and praised the murders committed by the Boston Marathon bombers. “In the name of God the Merciful, the beneficent,” Mateen said told dispatchers on the night of his rampage, “I pledge allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi may God protect him [said in Arabic], on behalf of the Islamic State.” Mateen’s Uzbek-born ex-wife revealed to reporters that he had beaten her and had expressed homophobic sentiments when he was angry. She  insisted that he was a devout (though not militant) Muslim. “He consumed a hell of a lot of jihadist propaganda,” a law enforcement source told CNN. Within weeks, reports began surfacing in major newspapers that the FBI had investigated Mateen for ten months but found nothing actionable. In 2014, his name was removed from the Terrorist Watchlist.

It is, however, reasonable for liberals to disregard all the evidence supporting the obvious conclusion that Mateen had become radicalized and performed an act of Islamist terrorism. After all, they were only listening to their political leaders.

Fewer than 48 hours after the attack, President Obama took to the podium not only to address a distraught nation but to respond to Donald Trump, who had attacked Obama for failing to call radical Islamic terrorism by its name. “What exactly would using this label accomplish? What exactly would it change?” Obama asked. “Calling a threat by a different name does not make it go away. This is a political distraction.” The president lashed out at Trump for demonizing immigrants, scapegoating Muslims, and seeking to distract the public from weightier issues. And, while he called Mateen’s deeds the act of “homegrown terrorism,” the president laid the blame for the massacre at the feet of American gun culture instead of militant Islamist ideologues who recruit combatants to commit acts of terror.

As Mateen’s motives became less obviously attributable to homophobia, the Obama administration began looking to change the subject, according to CBS News justice reporter Paula Reid. Several days after the attack, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch called Mateen’s mass-killing “an act of terror and an act of hate.” But when pressed, Lynch insisted that it was unlikely that investigators would “ever narrow it down to one motivation.” By then, though, the practice of Obama administration officials insisting that obviously Islamist attacks could never be firmly established as such had become habitual.

It’s possible that liberals who genuinely still believed Mateen to have been a violent, repressed gay man as late as April of 2018 were not ignorant. They were consuming plenty of information, but only the kind produced by and shared among themselves.

In the early days of Barack Obama’s administration, a cumbersome, multisyllabic battle cry began to reverberate within liberal echo chambers as those on the left sought to classify Republican derangement. “Epistemic closure,” they called it; a condition in which the right talked only amongst themselves, creating a hothouse environment in which conspiracy theories thrived and the worst caricatures of their ideological adversaries proliferated. This diagnosis, offered more in sorrow than anger, was a source of much liberal consternation. Apparently, the fever is catching. Heal thyself.

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