Many of us find it uncomfortable to think about, much less say. But what if it turns out that the Muslim man in the husband-and-wife team that massacred 14 people in San Bernardino was, indeed, radicalized toward terrorism?
That was where law enforcement appeared to head yesterday, with some officials saying Syed Rizwan Farook had been in contact with people the FBI was investigating for international terrorism. His trips to Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, the huge arsenal amassed by him and wife Tashfeen Malik, and recent changes in his behavior all became dots splayed on a profile map that need to be connected.
But even if the picture is filled in unambiguously, if the FBI determines this was not the result of a workplace grievance but an act of terrorism fueled by Farook’s own interpretation of Islam, we must be wise in how we respond. There are things we must do, things we must consider, and things we cannot do — while remaining clear-eyed and dispassionate, putting aside the emotions that engulfed us Wednesday.
We must remember the attackers were two people, and not succumb to the temptation to demonize a religion. Many Muslims were terrified something like the San Bernardino slaughter would happen. And now they fear retribution and disparagement will follow. Many simply want to live their lives and not be defined by their religion. We must not marginalize them.
We also must not be naive, and understand there will be others in this country like Farook. The assailants who killed five servicemen in July in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and 13 people at Fort Hood, Texas, in 2009 had profiles similar to Farook’s.
And we also must acknowledge that the San Bernardino attack is different from so many other mass slayings because of the context of our times. Radical Islamists have expressed their intent to attack Western countries, and have done exactly that. But Farook’s stunned colleagues said they did not see this coming. That unpredictability adds to everyone’s fears. Who’s next?
So we understandably want to keep people from becoming radicalized, and stop those who already are. But we cannot betray our nation’s values as we do that. Some proposals being bandied about — such as surveilling all mosques, registering and tracking all Muslims, or blocking Muslim refugees from entering the country — would do just that.
After each mass shooting, there is a call for smart gun control, anything to acknowledge we have to defuse a culture awash in guns. We say this understanding nothing reasonable would have stopped Farook from obtaining guns. And that any terrorist can learn online how to make a bomb. But we can say enough is enough by taking some commonsense steps, such as banning people on the terrorist watch list from buying guns, instituting background checks for gun show purchases, banning assault weapons, funding more mental health treatment, and allowing the Centers for Disease Control to research gun violence.
House Speaker Paul Ryan says this country is headed in the wrong direction. We agree. And one thing most Americans want is more restrictions on guns. We must learn, and respond to what happened in San Bernardino — not by lashing out in fear, but by acting out of wisdom.