In the days after the 2016 shooting at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando—a shooting that left 49 dead and 53 wounded—rumors quickly circulated: We heard that the shooter, Omar Mateen, was a closet case with a secret Grindr profile who targeted a gay club because of his own internalized homophobia. Vox published an interview with a man claiming to be Mateen's former lover, who said the shooter was "100 percent gay." To many of us, this made sense. What else could explain that level of hate? The one thing we knew for sure was that this was a hate crime. Pulse was a gay club. How could the attack be anything else?
But, it turns out, we were wrong.
This week, a jury acquitted Noor Salman, Mateen's widow (whom he reportedly beat and raped) of aiding and abetting and obstruction of justice in connection with the shooting. During the trial, as the Huffington Post's Melissa Jeltsen reports, it emerged that the attack wasn't about homophobia at all. Mateen didn't even know Pulse was a gay club. Before he began shooting, he asked a security guard where all the women were.
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.
Rather, it seems Mateen was motivated by American military intervention abroad. “You have to tell America to stop bombing Syria and Iraq," Mateen told a crisis negotiator over the phone from inside Pulse. "They are killing a lot of innocent people. What am I to do here when my people are getting killed over there? You get what I’m saying?”
Of course, even if this wasn't a hate crime, that doesn't bring back any of the people killed that night. It might not lessen anyone's pain at their loved ones' absence, either. But Mateen's true motivation is still important, because, as we know, military intervention abroad leads to terrorism at home. When we ignore this reality—when we ignore the very real harm the U.S. has done in Iraq or Yemen or Syria or Afghanistan or wherever—we only make it all the more likely to happen again.