The bullets are feeling closer to home every day. They are feeling more indiscriminate, more likely to strike someone who is not a stranger on TV.
A place as ordinary as a county social services center could have been a destination for any of us at any given time. This harrowing realization echoes as we drop our children off at school and imagine thoughts that never should be associated with normally happy hallways.
That’s the nature of terror.
A banal office complex in San Bernardino is hard to comprehend as a terrorist target. Yet federal investigators are working under the premise that it was. They are exhaustively examining the lives of the married couple who killed 14 people at the Inland Regional Center during a holiday party, before being killed themselves in a massive shootout with law enforcement.
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Syed Rizwan Farook, a 28-year-old American of Pakistani descent who was a county employee, is believed to have been in contact with people from two terrorist organizations, one in Syria and one in Somalia. Tashfeen Malik, his 29-year-old Pakistani-born wife, recently pledged allegiance to an Islamic State leader on a Facebook page. Federal authorities want to know whether either of them had received weapons or terrorist training in Pakistan. But those same federal authorities caution that they have yet to find evidence of Farook or Malik being part of a larger terrorist network.
For now, the belief is that the two had become “self-radicalized.”
If federal authorities find that Farook and Malik were working with an organized terror group in the Middle East or elsewhere, it would mark a new chapter in our post-9/11 history. It would signal another threat to national security by terrorists with overseas ties seeking to create fear and destruction in American communities. And it would come at a time when our nation, faced with its Auroras and Newtowns, already is being terrorized by native-born assailants seeking to create fear and destruction in American communities.
San Bernardino feels different from other mass shootings. It may prove to be different if the shooters were part of a foreign terrorist group. But most other ways, San Bernardino is not different. It was simply the latest rampage carried out by people “self-radicalized” to one cause or another. Their causes were different, but the assailants who were moved to follow them traveled deadly paths cleared by easy and legal access to guns.
San Bernardino came on the heels of three people killed at the Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado and nine people killed at a community college in Oregon – and many other killings before that.
Citing databases that track mass shootings, the New York Times reported last week that 462 people have been killed and 1,314 have been wounded this year in mass shootings. “More than one a day,” the Times wrote. “That is how often, on average, shootings that left four or more people wounded or dead occurred in the United States.”
Robert L. Dear Jr. is accused of killing three and wounding nine with a semi-automatic rifle at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, Colo., on Nov. 27 – five days before San Bernardino.
“Turn to Jesus or BURN IN HELL,” Dear reportedly wrote a decade ago in a heated exchange with another poster on a marijuana website: “WAKE UP SINNERS U CANT SAVE YOURSELF U WILL DIE AN WORMS SHALL EAT YOUR FLESH, NOW YOUR SOUL IS GOING SOMEWHERE.”
Though he portrayed himself as deeply religious, Dear’s former wife accused him of physical abuse and adultery. “He claims to be Christian and is extremely evangelistic, but does not follow the Bible in his actions,” Barbara Micheau said in court documents after Dear’s arrest.
On Sept. 30, Christopher Harper-Mercer opened fire at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Ore. Harper-Mercer was described as an introvert who only came alive when discussing guns. He was reported to have asked his victims their religious affiliations but didn’t wait for answers before opening fire. Harper-Mercer killed nine people before killing himself.
Like Farook and Malik, Harper-Mercer was heavily armed as if he had planned to kill many more people.
In June, nine people were killed at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C. The suspect, Dylann Storm Roof, is accused of gunning down his victims as they prayed during Bible study. Roof is white, and the people he’s charged with killing were African American. Previously, Roof had written a manifesto of racial hatred on his website.
“I have no choice,” he wrote. “I am not in the position to, alone, go into the ghetto and fight. I chose Charleston because it is most historic city in my state, and at one time had the highest ratio of blacks to Whites in the country. We have no skinheads, no real KKK, no one doing anything but talking on the internet. Well someone has to have the bravery to take it to the real world, and I guess that has to be me.”
From a distance, Farook wasn’t disenfranchised or disconnected like Roof. He was educated, a college graduate. He held a steady job. He was married, the father of an infant daughter. He seemed to have friends in the office where he worked. Then he abruptly left during a holiday potluck for county health workers and returned heavily armed with his wife, who also was heavily armed. They had dropped off their baby before heading to the building.
None of it fits a profile of disturbed, solitary killers. What Farook most had in common with the others was the ease with which he legally obtained his weapons. According to the Los Angeles Times, Farook and Malik legally bought the two handguns they carried during the attack. The New York Times reported that the two assault rifles they used also were bought legally, but by someone who is not a suspect.
Harper-Mercer and Roof legally purchased guns, as did the killers in Aurora, Colo., and Newtown, Conn. It’s unclear how Dear obtained his weapon.
Though Farook and Malik are being probed for terrorist ties, it’s ironic that even suspects on the FBI’s consolidated terror watch list are allowed to buy firearms in the United States. Last week, every U.S. Senate Republican except Mark Kirk of Illinois voted against a bill that would have barred suspects on the watch list from buying guns.
Meanwhile, four Republican senators running for president – Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul and Lindsey Graham – all voted against a bill that would have expanded background checks to gun shows and online firearms dealers. The point of the bill was to create more safeguards to prevent convicted felons or mentally ill people from buying and stockpiling firearms.
The four GOP presidential hopefuls talk a great game about cracking down on terror and crime – so long as it doesn’t interfere with gun sales. Apparently, we’ll fight terrorists if they are of Middle Eastern descent, but shrug our shoulders if they are white and American-born.
But back to our fear. Is San Bernardino terrifying because of what it could forebode? Of course it is. But terror is terror. Bloodshed is bloodshed. Killers are killers and victims are victims.
Some may say terrorism is back in America. But it has already been here for quite some time.