Glenn Greenwald Politics

The Enduring False Narrative of the Pulse Nightclub Massacre

Politicians and activists should stop propagandizing the fiction that Omar Mateen was motivated by anti-LGBT hatred, says Greenwald. It dishonors the victims and obscures the real motive.
Pulse Nightclub Memorial
Thousands gather outside the Dr. Phillips Performing Arts Center for a vigil Monday, June 13, 2016 in Orlando, Fa. A large crowd gathered to remember the Pulse nightclub shooting victims early Sunday. (Chris Urso/Tampa Bay Times via AP)

By Glenn Greenwald / Substack

On the fifth anniversary of the Pulse nightclub massacre in Orlando, numerous senators, politicians and activist groups commemorated that tragic event by propagating an absolute falsehood: namely, that the shooter, Omar Mateen, was motivated by anti-LGBT animus. The evidence is definitive and conclusive that this is false — Mateen, like so many others who committed similar acts of violence, was motivated by rage over President Obama’s bombing campaigns in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, and chose Pulse at random without even knowing it was a gay club — yet this media-consecrated lie continues to fester.

On Saturday, Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) falsely described the massacre as an “unspeakable act of hate toward the LGBTQ+ community.” Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) went even further, claiming “the LGBTQ+ community was targeted and killed—all because they dared to live their lives.” Her fellow Illinois Democrat, Sen. Dick Durbin, claimed forty-nine lives were lost due to “anti-LGBTQ hate” (he forgot the +). These false claims were compiled by the gay socialist activist Matt Thomas, who correctly objected: “the shooter literally picked Pulse at random from Google after security was too tight at the mall he went to first,” adding that while LGBT groups “are hopeless of course,” too much money and power is at stake for them to give up this self-serving fiction. But he asked, “Shouldn’t the bar be a little higher for senators?”

In the immediate aftermath of that horrific crime, it may have been reasonable for the public to speculate that Mateen, given his professed support for ISIS, chose Pulse because it was a gay club. That belief also neatly played into a liberal political agenda of highlighting anti-LGBT hate crimes, and also comported with the dual stereotypes of the gay-hating Muslim and the closeted gay man who harbors self-hatred that ends up directed at other gay people. This storyline was instantly consecrated when politicians and LGBT groups quickly seized on this claim and ratified it as unquestionably true.

Rather than acknowledging that it was anger over his relentless bombing raids in the Muslim world, President Obama immediately declared that anti-LGBT hatred was the real cause. “This was an attack on the LGBT community,” the president said, adding: “And hatred towards people because of sexual orientation, regardless of where it comes from, is a betrayal of what’s best in us.” Chad Griffin, then-head of the largest LGBT advocacy group, Human Rights Campaign, claimed: “the maniac who did this was somehow conditioned to believe that LGBT people deserve to be massacred, that they are ‘less than’ in this society.”

Then-candidate Hillary Clinton, as part of her campaign, made a pilgrimage to Orlando and seized on the attack. In addition to its constituting anti-American terrorism, the Democratic nominee proclaimed the massacre “was also an act of hate,” adding that “the gunman attacked an LGBT nightclub during Pride Month.” She vowed: “We will keep fighting for your right to live freely, openly and without fear. Hate has absolutely no place in America.” Speaking with Clinton in Orlando, Attorney General Loretta Lynch said that it is “a cruel irony that a community defined almost exclusively by whom they love [LGBT people] is so often a target of hate.” Then-candidate Donald Trump also endorsed this view: “A radical Islamic terrorist targeted the nightclub, not only because he wanted to kill Americans, but in order to execute gay and lesbian citizens, because of their sexual orientation.”

Liberal propagandists who pose as journalists treated this storyline as definitively proven. The massacre was “undeniably a homophobic hate crime,” Jeet Heer wrote in The New Republic. “Let’s say it plainly: This was a mass slaying aimed at LGBT people,” Tim Teeman wrote in The Daily Beast. In USA Today, James S. Robbins speculated that Mateen was likely “trying to reconcile his inner feelings with his strongly homophobic Muslim culture.” In the days following the killing spree, one writer in USA Today, Steph Solis, even accused those of questioning this narrative of propagating bigotry and exhibiting cruel indifference to gay suffering: “Those who insist the shooting was solely an Islamic terror attack try to erase the LGBT community from the narrative, causing only more pain by invalidating their experiences in this ordeal.”

But journalism is supposed to function on evidence, not speculation, and there never was any evidence that supported the storyline that he was driven by hatred for LGBTs. The evidence that was available suggested the opposite.

On June 12, 2016, Mateen spent just over three hours in Pulse from the time he began slaughtering innocent people at roughly 2:00 a.m. until he was killed by a SWAT team at roughly 5:00 a.m. During that time, he repeatedly spoke to his captives about his motive, did the same with the police with whom he was negotiating, and discussed his cause with local media which he had called from inside the club. Mateen was remarkably consistent in what he said about his motivation. Over and over, he emphasized that his attack at Pulse was in retaliation for U.S. bombing campaigns in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. In his first call with 911 while inside Pulse, this is what he said about why he was killing people:

Because you have to tell America to stop bombing Syria and Iraq. They are killing a lot of innocent people. What am I to do here when my people are getting killed over there. … You need to stop the U.S. airstrikes. They need to stop the U.S. airstrikes, OK? . … This went down, a lot of innocent women and children are getting killed in Syria and Iraq and Afghanistan, OK? … The airstrikes need to stop and stop collaborating with Russia. OK?

In the hours he spent surrounded by the gay people he was murdering, he never once uttered a homophobic syllable, instead always emphasizing his geo-political motive. Not a single survivor reported him saying anything derogatory about LGBTs or even anything that suggested he knew he was in a gay club. All said he spoke extensively about his vengeance on behalf of ISIS against U.S. bombing of innocent Muslims.

Mateen’s postings on Facebook leading up to his attack all reflected the same motive. They were filled with rage about and vows of retaliation against U.S. bombing. Not a single post contained any references to LGBTs let alone anger or violence toward them. “You kill innocent women and children by doing U.S. airstrikes,” Mateen wrote on Facebook in one of his last posts before attacking Pulse, adding: “Now taste the Islamic state vengeance.”

It was of course nonetheless possible that he secretly harbored hatred for LGBTs and hid his real motive, but that never made sense: the whole point of terrorism is to publicize, not conceal, the grievances driving the violence. And again, good journalism requires evidence before ratifying claims. There never was any to support the story that Mateen’s attack was driven by anti-LGBT hatred, and all the available evidence early on negated that suspicion and pointed to a radically different motive. But the media frenzy ended up, by design or otherwise, obscuring Mateen’s anger over Obama’s bombing campaigns as his motive in favor of promoting this as an anti-LGBT hate crime.

As the FBI investigation into Mateen proceeded, all the early media gossip — that Mateen was a closeted gay man who had searched for male sexual partners and had even previously visited Pulse — was debunked. The month after the attack, The Washington Post reported that “The FBI has found no evidence so far that Omar Mateen chose the popular establishment because of its gay clientele,” and quoted a federal investigator as saying: “While there can be no denying the significant impact on the gay community, the investigation hasn’t revealed that he targeted Pulse because it was a gay club.” The New York Times quickly noted that no evidence could be found to support the speculation that Mateen was gay:

F.B.I. investigators, who have conducted more than 500 interviews in the case, are continuing to contact men who claim to have had sexual relations with Mr. Mateen or think they saw him at gay bars. But so far, they have not found any independent corroboration — through his web searches, emails or other electronic data — to establish that he was, in fact, gay, officials said.

The following year, the local paper that most extensively covered the Pulse massacre, The Orlando Sentinel, acknowledged that “there’s still no evidence that the Pulse killer intended to target gay people.”

As the investigation proceeded, this anti-LGBT hate crime narrative became more and more unlikely. But the question of Mateen’s motives was settled once and for all — or at least it should have been — during the unsuccessful attempt by the Justice Department to prosecute Mateen’s wife, Noor Salman, on numerous felony charges alleging her complicity in her husband’s attack. That trial — quite justifiably — ended in a full acquittal for Salman, but evidence emerged during it that conclusively disproved the widely held view that Mateen chose Pulse because he wanted to kill gay people.

Along with my then-colleague Murtaza Hussain, I extensively reported on the Salman trial and compiled all the evidence that emerged during it that proved anti-LGBT hatred was not part of Mateen’s motive. But it was not just us: virtually every journalist who covered that trial, including several who began believing or at least suspecting that this was an anti-gay hate crime, definitively concluded that this was false. Reporter Melissa Jeltsen covered that trial for The Huffington Post and — writing under the headline “Everyone Got The Pulse Massacre Story Completely Wrong” — explained:

Almost overnight, a narrative emerged that until now has been impossible to dislodge: Mateen planned and executed an attack on Pulse because he hated gay people. . . . Salman’s trial cast doubt on everything we thought we knew about Mateen. There was no evidence he was a closeted gay man, no evidence that he was ever on Grindr. He looked at porn involving older women, but investigators who scoured Mateen’s electronic devices couldn’t find any internet history related to homosexuality. (There were daily, obsessive searches about ISIS, however.) Mateen had extramarital affairs with women, two of whom testified during the trial about his duplicitous ways.

Mateen may very well have been homophobic. He supported ISIS, after all, and his father, an FBI informant currently under criminal investigation, told NBC that his son once got angry after seeing two men kissing. But whatever his personal feelings, the overwhelming evidence suggests his attack was not motivated by it.

Even the gay reporter for NBC News who covers the LGBT community, Tim Fitzsimons, tried to make clear that the commonly held view of the Pulse attack as an anti-LGBT hate crime was false. “The attack on the nightclub has long been seen as a hate crime directed at the LGBTQ community,” explained the headline under which he wrote, “but all evidence says the gunman chose it at random.”

NBC News, June 12, 2018

What that conclusive evidence proved is that Mateen had spent days scoping out Disney locations but concluded they were too secured to attack. Search records from Mateen’s phone and computers showed him looking for “Orlando clubs,” but never “gay Orlando clubs.” That night, after cell tower records and security cameras showed him scoping out several Disney venues, he used his phone to Google the search term “Orlando nightclubs” — not “gay clubs” — and chose Pulse because the popular nightclub was the first search term that appeared. Witnesses said that when he entered, he asked security guards: “where are the women?” As Jeltsen wrote: “As far as investigators could tell, Mateen had never been to Pulse before, whether as a patron or to case the nightclub.” None of Mateen’s phones or computers had any evidence he sought sex with men but contained ample evidence of his affairs with numerous women.

Whatever Mateen’s motives were, the horror and tragedy of the extinguishing of forty-nine innocent lives at Pulse on June 12, 2016, remains the same. But this enduring falsehood — which continues to deceive many well-meaning people through this very day, long past the point that it has been definitively debunked — is damaging for so many reasons.

Lying about what happened dishonors Mateen’s victims. It harms the cause of LGBT equality, which does not need lies and fabrications to be a just movement. It obscures how often U.S. violence in the Muslim world causes “blowback” — to use the CIA’s term — by motivating others to bring violence to the U.S. as retaliation and deterrence for violence against innocent Muslims. And a major reason for the completely unjust prosecution of Noor Salman was to appease understandable demands within the Orlando LGBT community for someone to be punished, but mob justice rarely produces anything benevolent.

No matter how noble the intent, journalism — and activism — becomes corrupted if it knowingly supports falsehoods. That the Pulse massacre was an act of anti-LGBT hatred is a fiction. Unless you are a neocon, there is no such thing as a “noble lie.” It is way past time for politicians and activist groups to stop disseminating this one.

Glenn Greenwald
Glenn Greenwald

Glenn Greenwald is a journalist, constitutional lawyer, and author of four New York Times best-selling books on politics and law. His most recent book, “No Place to Hide,” is about the U.S. surveillance state and his experiences reporting on the Snowden documents around the world. The NSA reporting he led for the Guardian was awarded the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for public service. He co-founded The Intercept in 2013, resigning in October 2020.

10 comments

  1. Contrary to Hillary Clinton’s myopic observations, not only does “hate” have a “place in America,” but only 6 1/2 months into 2021- and there’s already been 270 mass shootings… with 1,700+ victims!

    I’m so tired of the political posturing and identity politics surrounding which victims “deserve” to be honored by our American flag flying at half staff. Whether or not they were victims of a “hate crime,” isn’t it about time to address the disintegrating social and mental health of our nation, especially when these psychotic ritual killings are only increasing in tempo and intensity?

    1. Good comment. In addition, I think we should fly our flag at half staff ALL the time to display awareness of the constant BS and posturing of our political glass on behalf of our corporate owners that common citizens have to endure as we duck for cover.

      1. John R,

        Did you happen to notice that unlike the federal stand-off in Jordan, Montana at the end of the 20th century, none of the rabble in Washington, D.C. on January 6th were flying the American flag inverted? The American flag is actually directed to be displayed upside down when a position is in distress and in need of reinforcement.

        If those seeking to invalidate the electoral college (many of whom were police officers and/or veterans) truly believed democracy was under attack, they failed to raise the appropriate signal flag.

        Instead, the crowd displayed all manner of Trump banners, the Gadsden flag, the Confederate battle flag, a fascist flag from a video game, and even the VDARE flag. These symbols were clearly not intended to promote unity and inclusion in a quest for justice, but rather as a means to mark dominance over a public space temporarily expropriated by White Power.

  2. Very very interesting. The fact that he considered a mall first *entirely* changes it IMO. I wasn’t aware of this
    Now, it seems to me, it looks like he went there for two reasons. The first being that he thought Bin Laden style (entirely wrongly of course) all Americans were equally guilty as they have (and often bragg and bully about having) the democratic means to put an end to the carnage, but don’t. And secondly, at that nightclub, _he knew how to get past security_

  3. Well, it’s SO reassuring that the non-state terrorists are picking their targets entirely at random, so that we can no longer think: maybe I’m safer if I’m not seen as part of one of the groups these folk might feel were responsible for, or complicit in, or heedless of their pain or sense of relative righteousness. I don’t feel much reassured that the world is more comprehensible as a result of your clarification. May I meantime just ask the readership to consider that the people of Iran, nothing to do with the previous article, are the inheritors of an ancient civilisation, and many have or had wonderful friendly manners even when I was there in ’79, even if their government now feels the need to hold Nazanin Zagari-Ratcliffe in lieu of the restitution of the money they paid for British battlefield tanks in the ’70. But, you know… many fewer of their sons would have died in the Iran-Iraq war if they’d had those tanks, I think it safe to presume. Somebody has to hold out to make war safer for all of us. Those people have now paid a huge economic cost for their cruel idea of parading the former hostages blindfolded through a hostile crowd, and if only the U.S. could stop torturing Iran itself, you could come to appreciate each other. Just saying, since unlike certain other parties have since then, they didn’t kill those hostages. Failing to distinguish the Iranians from Islamic Jihad is like failing to distinguish Ho Chi Minh from Mao Zedong, and you know where that got you.

  4. This debunking never quite caught up to me and I appreciate Greenwald and Scheerpost bringing it to my attention.

    The only error mainstream corporate capitalist state agitprop media admit are typos so I am surprised that so many actually did tell the accurate, true story at least eventually:.

  5. Unfortunately, Duckworth and Durbin are my Senators here in Illinois, and it’s hard to figure which one is worse. No surprise at their pandering and ignorance at this point.

    1. TimN,

      I remember my naive trust in Dick Durbin back in 2006, when I informed (VERY INTERESTED) staff members at his office of evidence collected regarding CIA black sites and illegal torture by military members and “contractors.” The office assured me (just like the office of John Conyers D-MI) that as soon as the Democratic Party was back in the majority there would be a moral reckoning.

      Golly gee oh my, I was just so gosh-darned impressed that these powerful committed men would be willing to do the “right” thing to defend the rule of law, regardless of any potential political co$t.

      Fast forward to 2007 when Dems controlled BOTH the House and the Senate: Nothing was done to hold those in violation of domestic law and international law accountable for their actions. Their reply: “We can’t do anything, because we can’t risk losing the 2008 presidential election.”

      Fast Forward to 2009 when Dems controlled BOTH the House and the Senate AND the White House: Nothing was done to hold those in violation of domestic law and international law accountable for their actions. Their reply: We can’t do anything, because President Obama said we needed to “move on.”

      Really? Move on to drone-bombing an innocent American teenager from Colorado… because he’s looking for the dead body of his father (and American citizen) whom Obama previously drone-bombed to death without any official charges or even a show trial? Hell, even Bush didn’t stoop that low.

      Where does Sen. Durbin stand on extrajudicial executions of Americans?

      In the exact same period of time, CIA whistleblowers John Kiriakou and William Binney were convicted and sentenced to prison time for bothering to actually care enough to inform the American electorate of the nefarious crimes being committed by their rulers (and their CIA henchmen).

      But, how could we E-VER tolerate leaks to the media which PROVE the level of depravity and surveillance of the U.S. Government? Much better to protect the interests of a political class which intentionally promotes the blooded training of sociopathic military thugs (who will more than likely), end up employed as police officers in our own country, wantonly killing people of color in the streets.

      Meanwhile, Dick Durbin, John Conyers, Barack Obama, and the VAST majority of Dems chose to look the other way while Dennis Kucinich introduced Articles of Impeachment against George W. Bush and Dick Cheney for their part in the propaganda campaign of lies leveraged to intentionally manipulate the U.S. into an unjustified invasion and subsequent 20 YEAR occupation of Afghanistan:

      See video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ybal5wuZHw8

      and here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yJYbgouqlMw

      Occupation insured that the Taliban would NO LONGER be burning the opium fields of Afghanistan. Should the Taliban forget, and return to burning the #1 CIA cash crop after the 9/11/2021 exodus… please believe me when I say the U.S. WILL be back.

  6. I just got around to reading this. I suppose I should be shocked, but 3+ decades of neglect and/or outright lies from a D party oligarchy who only care about their own professional class 20%ers means I live in a state of permanent skepticism.

    However, as a trans, gay, and working class leftist, not to mention human in general, I’m angry at the deliberate distortion. This vile political propaganda is certainly a deflection from the USA as the merchant of death. But more than that, it’s a de facto shift of blame onto us–a closet case is still one of us, thus the fault would be ours somehow.

    All the hand wringing by “outraged” D elected officials does nothing to change anything. Their right wing R bigot colleagues can rest assured that projecting their own moral faults onto LGBTQI people can continue unimpeded.

  7. It is absolutely required that we continue to get it wrong about the motives of such killers. Everybody getting it wrong about everthing has proven to take jackpot at the great casinos in the skies of authoritaria. Over and over and over again. Authoritarianism’s hierarchies of privilege require ignorant/confused slaves to get it wrong, to resign from reaching for our full potential, so as to do all the dirty work, from killing/dying in wars to scrubbing the gunk in the toilets, to harvesting tasteless tomatoes, and eating tasteless tomatoes, and paying astronomical prices for tasteless tomatoes. And this is just the tippy tip of the tip of the iceberg of authoritaria, where the people get nothing in comparison to what we could have, if we would only reach for our full potential. Getting it wrong about this, getting it wrong about that. Getting it wrong about everything keeps us dependent on authority. We’re supposed to be so stupid we can’t walk ten feet without stumbling. We need authority to guide us. Keep us happily ignorant, happily dependent, happily submissive. This is how civilizations are built, how empires are built, how thrones are built. Umm, there happens to be an alternative to authoritaria. You want to develop the worldview of the alternative, anarchia, and report it back here in this comment section? Umm, what’s stopping us from dreaming about what we really want, what we can have if we stop this patirotic buying of new ‘cars’, this patriotic paying of ‘pentagon’ taxes, this patriotic inflating of ‘real estate’ prices, and instead reach for our full potential? We’ll get it right about everything. Then no need for authority, see?

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