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June 14, 2016

The story of causation behind the massacre at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub is most likely complex and thus not useful for politics. In politics people look for simple causes to blame, the better to advance their preferred solution. That was pretty evident on Twitter on Sunday and in debates about the cause of Orlando since.

As it happens I’m teaching a course on Public Policy this summer and using Deborah Stone’s invaluable Policy Paradox: The Art of Political Decision Making. When a problem arises it is helpful to have a causation story about it. Here’s a telling passage:

Complex causal explanations are not very useful in politics, precisely because they do not offer a single locus or control, a plausible candidate to take responsibility for a problem, or a point of leverage to fix a problem. Hence one of the biggest tensions between social science and real-world politics; social scientists tend to see complex causes of social problems, while in politics, people search for immediate and simple causes.

The most appalling example of political actors using Orlando was from Donald Trump, whose tweet took a victory lap for himself and offered this:

To Trump the problem is radical Islamic terrorism and as he later made clear the solution is to enact his proposed ban on all Muslims entering the country. Since Omer Mateen was American born the ban on Muslims wouldn’t have had much impact. But this is politics, not logic. Trump has also said that many Muslims in our country know of these attacks before they happen but do not report the threat to the police, thus blaming all American Muslims. So in Trump’s world, all Muslims and not just terrorists are a cause.

Twitter was also alight with those who argue the cause of the killing was the easy availability of firearms in this country, especially assault weapons. If that story came to be widely accepted, it might lead to government regulation of assault weapons (in a more rational America, not the one we live in). Predictably, blaming the availability of the AR-15 to Omer Mateen is not something the NRA accepts as a likely cause. Instead, in an op-ed in USA Today an NRA official blamed the Obama administration’s “political correctness.”

In this case it already seems there is some complexity that may make it difficult to assign just one cause. Mateen’s apparent homophobia may have been the reason he targeted Pulse, and there is homophobia in some Islamic thought and especially from ISIS, to which Mateen pledged allegiance. The cause was evidently not (so far as we know yet) that Mateen was in contact with ISIS, but that he had been radicalized by tis propaganda found online. Another cause.

The NRA spokesman placed the blame on madmen and terrorists. Often, the NRA and congressional Republicans blame not guns but people with mental health issues. We certainly have problems providing mental health care in this country though Congress never seems to do much about that cause, even after a gun related mass killing. Also, mental health advocates reject that cause and point out the stigmatization of individuals with mental health concerns as a harm from pushing that cause.

Gay rights advocates immediately called for more protections for their community, and pointed out that not just ISIS followers but many Christian believers in this country demonize the LGBTQ community. For example, Texas Lt. Governor Dan Patrick tweeted on Sunday morning: “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows.” He quickly took the tweet down, and a spokesman explained that Patrick tweets a Bible verse each Sunday and that one had been chosen on Thursday. Right.

There isn’t anything unusual about politicians and advocates defining causation differently, because the policy choices that arise from assigning a cause will affect their positions. Some are less plausible than others. (It has been a bad year for political correctness). The Mateen case in particular seems to be one that will take a good bit of untangling of complex causes. But complex causes are not useful in political persuasion, so we’ll continue to see more one cause explanations.

Mateen, Orlando, Pulse

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