It is a grotesque but reliable fact of the era we live in that, when an 18-year-old college kid attempts mass murder on a rural American campus, we immediately know what to ask.
Had there been signs of mental illness? Had he recently suffered some humiliation or setback? Was someone bullying him? Was he hallucinating?
Rarely is our go-to question: Was he a lone-wolf terrorist?
Yet that was the immediate drumbeat after authorities identified the knife-wielding UC Merced freshman who wounded four people Wednesday before he was shot and killed by campus police.
Even after authorities dismissed a sole early tweet from an apparently pro-terrorist Twitter account as lame propaganda – even after they declared, unequivocally, that Faisal Mohammad’s rampage “wasn’t a terrorist act” and that the Santa Clara teenager “wasn’t religiously or politically motivated” – the Fox News headline blared: “ISIS-linked tweet praises California stabber ...”
Conservative websites such as Breitbart and pundits such as Michelle Malkin were happy to repeat the terrorist speculation, and social media bigots were happy to draw the most sensational conclusion. Only later did a manifesto reveal he was enraged about having been kicked out of a study group.
Here on Earth, where psychologists note that the onset of severe mental illness often occurs with a breakdown in an adolescent’s late teens or 20s, clearer eyes might have seen the far less exotic picture: a lonely, reclusive boy; a handwritten list (scissors, night-vision scope, zip-tie handcuffs); a backpack full of makeshift gear (duct tape, hammer, petroleum jelly).
Merced County Sheriff Vern Warnke said 20 FBI agents had scoured his background and had found no link to national security. One of his victims claimed he “was smiling” during the attack, but that he also “could see fear in his eyes.”
In fact, the most unusual thing about Faisal Mohammad’s attack was the inefficiency of his weapon, a hunting knife rather than the arsenal of firearms typically used for campus slaughter. Not stressed by the pundits was that, deprived of bullets, Mohammad was the only one to lose his life.
There’s probably a lesson here about waiting for the whole story. But here’s a suggestion while we do: Let’s support Wednesday’s approval by a congressional panel of HR 2646, a bipartisan bill to improve and fund treatment for people with severe mental illness.
Just in case the next campus tragedy is also more about human frailty than terrorists in dormitory rooms.