Criminal Justice Intelligence & National Security Jonas Becker Society Society, Culture, and Security Terrorism The United States of America

San Bernardino and the Politicization of Mass Shootings in the USA

On Wednesday, December 2, 2015 the USA was wracked by another mass shooting in San Bernardino, California. The attack was carried out by US born Syed Rizwan Farook and his wife, Pakistani national Tashfeen Malik, and occurred after a reported dispute at a Christmas party in a San Bernardino Public Health facility that provides services for developmentally disabled adults. After leaving the party, the two suspects returned wearing military style clothing and opened fire inside the building, before fleeing in a black SUV. The couple was later pursued and killed in a gunfight with police. Two long guns and two semi-automatic pistols were recovered from the bodies, while pipe bombs were found in the car and at the scene of the initial shooting. Tragically, according to the NGO Gun Violence Archive, this marks the USA’s 310th mass shooting in 2015, and left 14 dead and 21 wounded.

Authorities are still attempting to determine the motive behind the attack, but like other mass shootings in the USA, the tragedy has already become highly politicized in the media and politics. Farook was a US born citizen, but had recently traveled to Saudi Arabia and returned with a wife of Pakistani origin. Fox News was quick to capitalize this, noting that “speculation mounted that the pair left their IED factory home hell bent on jihad.” Farook had returned to the USA with a full beard, was a devout Muslim, and operated what Fox described as an IED factory, with Al-Qaeda style RDX explosive cars found at the scene. The article also quoted San Bernardino Police Chief Jarrod Burguan, who claimed that “they came prepared to do what they did, as if they were on a mission.”

The FBI is now leading the investigation, but has cautioned against leaping to conclusions about terrorism, calling initial classifications as “irresponsible and premature.”  While the suspect was noted to have ties to international and domestic terrorist groups, Director David Bowdich has instead pointed to the possibility of workplace violence. The FBI defines terrorism as activities that:

  1. Involves acts dangerous to human life that violate federal or state law;
  2. Appear intended 1) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping; and
  3. Occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the US.

Thus far, none of these allegations have been concretely proven. While the pair had stockpiled an enormous arsenal of ammunition, explosives and tactical gear, this is not an uncommon occurrence in the gun obsessed culture of the USA. It is the travel and contact with suspected terrorist organization that may warrant further investigation.

Politicians were quick to offer their prayers and thoughts via social media applications such as Twitter, with responses split along ideological lines. Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz wrote that “our prayers are with the victims, their families, and the first responders in San Bernardino who willingly go into harm’s way to save others”. Cruz would later go on to add that the rise of Islamic terrorism in the USA was a good rationale for the country’s needing a strong, wartime President: himself. Conversely, Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton wrote that “I refuse to accept this as normal. We must take action to stop gun violence now”, while candidate Bernie Sanders railed that “mass shootings are becoming an almost everyday occurrence in this country. This sickening and senseless gun violence must stop.”

Support for pro-gun lobby groups such as the National Rifle Association (NRA) overwhelmingly comes from within the Republican caucus, and some critics have also taken to social media platforms to draw attention to the perceived hypocrisy of their prayers. One blogger retweeted each Republican prayer with the amount of funding they had received from the NRA, while Senator Chris Murphy, whose home state of Connecticut was the scene of a mass shooting this year, tweeted that “Your thoughts should be about steps to stop this carnage. Your “prayers” should be forgiveness if you do nothing – again.” Politicians are seen as being in a position to introduce legislative change, and offering mere platitudes has raised the ire of onlookers.

Whether or not the recent shooting turns out to have its roots in terrorism, or turns out to be a case of workplace violence, the alarming frequency of mass shootings in the USA exacerbates the deep political rifts between the Democratic and Republican camps. It may also have an effect on the level of willingness of the American public to participate in further action with NATO and partner nations against Daesh in Syria and Iraq. While the right attempts to portray this as a case of Islamic terrorism and the need for protection of the 2nd amendment, the left highlights the hypocrisy of overturning gun reform legislation with one hand and offering sympathy with the other. Ultimately, both factions are exploiting the continued killing for the furthering of their political mandate. Sadly, while the debate rages, innocent Americans continue to bleed.

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Jonas Becker
Jonas Becker is the NATO Association of Canada’s Program Editor for Procurement. He is a recent graduate of the University of Toronto, Victoria College, where he obtained an Honors Bachelor of Arts and Science, with distinction, in political science and history. For his final year, Jonas participated in an exchange year at the University of Hong Kong, where he examined Chinese public policy and internal governance. Jonas has participated in various extracurricular and professional development positions, including a communications internship at Blacksharp: From Strategy to Execution, and as a lead debate writer and analyst for The Newspaper, Victoria College. His academic and professional interests are currently focused on transportation infrastructure, sustainability, and Canada’s growing role with NATO overseas security deployments. He hopes to one day hold a position within the Canadian government or an NGO organization working towards one of these goals, and enjoys reading and all forms of exercise.