San Bernardino slaughter not the terrorism we expected

San Bernardino, Calif., shooter Syed Farook purchased guns used in the attack at "Annie's Get Your Gun" in Corona.
San Bernardino, Calif., shooter Syed Farook purchased guns used in the attack at "Annie's Get Your Gun" in Corona. TNS

In the days after the terror attacks in Paris, the threat of another attack, this one against the United States, seemed all too real. Travel warnings were issued for Americans abroad. Middle Eastern passengers were booted off planes. Politicians moved to block Syrian refugees from entering the country, insisting they could be terrorists in disguise.

But now that the attack we feared has finally happened, it doesn’t quite fit the terrorism narrative.

Authorities identified Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik as the shooters in the slaughter Wednesday at Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino. They burst into a holiday office party at the center, armed with rifles, high-capacity magazines and hundreds of rounds of ammunition. They killed 14 people and hurt another 21. They died hours later in a televised shootout with police.

Both are of Pakistani descent. Both are Muslim. But they were married with an infant daughter whom they dropped off with a relative before the attack. Malik shot at the cops first. Farook was a co-worker of the people attending the holiday party.

Were they terrorists with ties to the Islamic State? Were they murderers with a mental illness? Were they workplace shooters with a grudge against someone in particular? The FBI isn’t certain yet. At this point, there are still more questions than answers.

That hasn’t stopped people from speculating and, in the process, irresponsibly setting the stage for even more irrational fear and suspicion of Muslim Americans in the absence of actual facts.

Carly Fiorina, for example, followed the lead of other Republican presidential candidates Thursday, saying: “Everything points to a terrorist attack – a homegrown terrorist attack.”

Perhaps that will turn out to be true. But as of Thursday, that was not known. For all of the things Americans thought they knew about terrorism and mass shootings, this case challenges assumptions.

Farook and Malik aren’t the immigrants we’ve been told to fear. They didn’t pose as refugees, or slip across our country’s porous border with Mexico, as too many politicians predicted they would. Both are in the United States legally.

Farook, 28, was born in Illinois to Pakistani immigrants and raised in Southern California. He’s an alum of California State University, San Bernardino. Malik, 27, was born in Pakistan and entered the country with Farook on a fiancée visa. She died as a holder of a conditional green card.

The couple met online, and police suspect Farook may have been radicalized during a trip to the Middle East to see her. But if so, he never lived on the fringes of society.

Farook worked for five years with the San Bernardino County Health Department. He didn’t have a criminal record and, therefore, was able to legally purchase at least some of the guns the couple used in their rampage. (The Senate on Thursday rejected two bills that would’ve made it harder for people suspected of terrorism to buy firearms.) Farook’s brother and even his co-workers described him as well-adjusted and “normal.”

Nothing about this case makes much sense. That’s scary. But it also underscores why blindly resorting to stereotypes about Muslims and immigrants and terrorists is such a dangerous thing to do.