Muslims, massacres and the media: San Bernardino raises uncomfortable questions

Published December 4th, 2015 - 04:56 GMT
The assumption being made is that because the suspected shooters were Muslims, it must be considered a terrorist attack. (Twitter)
The assumption being made is that because the suspected shooters were Muslims, it must be considered a terrorist attack. (Twitter)

The New York Times reported Friday that Tafsheen Malik, the Pakistani woman who officials say is responsible for the San Bernardino massacre, pledged allegiance to Daesh on Facebook. The shooting bears some of the hallmarks of political violence: in particular, the premeditation and planning that apparently were behind the deadly assault. 

Yet the massacre, which was the deadliest mass shooting in the US since the 2012 Sandy Hook tragedy, also appears to have been an instance of workplace violence. And America is having a hard time understanding that it might have been both. 

During the shooting and in the immediate aftermath, politicians and the media believed it was just another mass shooting by a mentally unstable gun owner. US presidential candidates blandly offered "prayers for the victims," which is the typical Republican response after a mass shooting, since confronting lax gun control laws -- which is the real problem behind gun violence -- is politically unpopular. 

Meanwhile, Thursday morning, when The New York Post hit news-stands, the slightly-boring headline “Murder Mission” ran on the front page. And then something happened: the identities of the San Bernardino massacre suspects were released. Their names were Syed Rizwan Farook, said to be a “devout Muslim,” and Tashfeen Malik, who he apparently met in Saudi Arabia. 

Politicians and the media immediately changed their tack. These were Muslims! By God! US presidential hopefuls like Ted Cruz and Donald Trump immediately began comparing the attack to what happened in Paris and calling it an act of war and a instance of "Islamic terrorism". Meanwhile, the New York Post changed its front page to have the words "Muslim Killers" plastered across it in gigantic type. 

And this was before investigators had determined a motive or any connection to extremist groups. When these statements were made, all the public knew about Tafsheen Malik and Syed Farook is that they were Muslims. 

Maybe this horrible shooting was a case of political violence, where religious Muslims were inspired by the Paris attacks or by some Daesh propaganda they watched on YouTube. But there are other factors at play here, too, that are equally important to address. The shooting reportedly happened after a dispute between Farook and a colleague. Co-workers at the San Bernardino County’s Public Health Department, where Farook worked, weren’t happy with the management there. 

Add to that the reports that Farook's father was a mentally ill alcoholic who was suicidal, and that Farook's mother reportedly took out a restraining order against him, and you get a more complex picture where -- if religious extremism was also a motivator for the bloodletting -- it was mixed together with other resentments and grievances that don't appear to be political at all. 

So why is it that every time a Muslim commits violence, it’s immediately deemed terrorism, even before the facts are known? As soon as the media heard Farook was a Muslim, it began discussing the significance of his beard. When a white supremacist shot up a black church in Charleston in June, did the media talk about his blonde hair? No. When a white Christian man shot up a Planned Parenthood last week, telling investigators after his arrest something about "no more baby parts" -- did the media call it terrorism? Again, no -- even though these attacks fit the US federal definition of terrorism, which is, essentially, an action "dangerous to human life" that is perpetrated for political reasons. 

The day after the Planned Parenthood shooting, the New York Post's front page didn't mention the shooting, instead choosing to run a local story about a Christmas tree lighting ceremony. 

Shouldn’t Muslims be allowed to have mental issues, too, which when left untreated drive them to senseless violence? Or must they always be motivated by “radical Islam”? 

America is comforted by the notion that this was a jihadi operation that originated in a foreign country by people who "hate our freedom." And they're comforted by it because that explanation means they don't have to face the fact that domestic issues, inherent to America, may also be to blame.

But we ignore those other issues at our own peril.   


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