Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.
Last week’s tragedy in San Bernardino, California, where 14 people were killed and 21 injured at a holiday party, has brought into sharp focus America’s cultural divisions over the response to terrorism. It also serves as a grim reminder of how urgent the issue is.
The confusion in the initial reports, which suggested that the masked shooters were white males, inadvertently highlighted some of the biases in this controversy. Many liberals and leftists on Twitter reacted quickly with statements about the need to recognize domestic white terrorism; some even tried to spin the incident as related to Planned Parenthood, which has a facility a mile away. Once the truth came out — the killers were a Muslim couple, the son of Pakistani immigrants and his Pakistani-born, Saudi-educated wife — there were pleas from the same quarters not to jump to conclusions.
It is now clear Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik were militant Islamists driven by political and religious zealotry. Counter to stereotype, it may have been the wife’s influence that radicalized the husband. Some believe Malik, a pharmacist and the mother of a 6-month-old girl, could have been the primary planner. She pledged loyalty to the Islamic State terror group on Facebook.
Predictably, some right-wing bloggers, social media users and Donald Trump used the tragedy as proof that all Muslims should be viewed as potential terrorists. This attitude is ugly and wrong, and President Barack Obama correctly described it as a betrayal of our values in his speech Sunday night. But attempts to downplay Islamist terrorism by many mainstream liberal commentators are also misguided.
Take, for instance, a study issued last summer by the New America Foundation claiming that since the Sept. 11 attacks, nearly twice as many people in the United States have been killed by white supremacists and anti-government or right-wing extremists as by Islamist terrorists (48 versus 26). This count ignores Americans killed by jihadists outside the United States, and leaves out several attacks on U.S. soil in which Islamist extremism was at least a partial motive — most notably, the 2002 killing spree of Beltway snipers John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo, which took 17 lives.
Initial attempts to equate the Nov. 27 Planned Parenthood shootings in Colorado with the San Bernardino massacre as “religious terrorism” were also strained. While alleged Planned Parenthood gunman Robert Lewis Dear was apparently a Bible-believing Christian, he also was a mentally ill loner with no accomplices or religious mentors. Farook and Malik were apparently in contact with religious extremists abroad and professed allegiance to an Islamist terrorist organization.
In a particularly offensive display of moral equivalence, New York Daily News columnist Linda Stasi suggested that one of the San Bernardino victims, Nicholas Thalasinos — whom Stasi described as a “radical Born Again Christian/Messianic Jew” and a strong Israel supporter who harbored anti-Muslim sentiments — was not truly “innocent” but as much of a “hate-filled bigot” as Farook. It should be unnecessary to point out that expressing obnoxious opinions does not compare with shooting people.
While many pundits have stressed gun control as a response to the massacre, weapons regulations are notoriously ineffective against terrorists (Farook and Malik had pipe bombs in addition to guns). The San Bernardino carnage should reopen a respectful but blunt conversation about the problem of extremism in the Muslim community, which Obama has named more explicitly than before. Law-abiding, mainstream American Muslims need it as much as the rest of us.
Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and Real Clear Politics.