Why isn’t ISIS massacring people in the United States every day? Even after the FBI declared the San Bernardino massacre an “act of terrorism” today, the 14 bodies added to the jihadist column on the murder scoreboard still left Islamic radicals trailing right-wing extremists, 48 to 45.
And even that comparison overstates the role of jihadi violence in American life, excluding as it does all the performative slaughter committed by teenagers, or by people claiming non-right-wing grievances, or by people too psychotic to fit political categorization, or by sexually frustrated misogynists. It is very easy to get guns in this country and to use them to kill large numbers of people in public places. People who are otherwise barely able to function in society have been able to do it.
“Go to New York, walk around Rockefeller Center,” New Jersey governor and not-yet-withdrawn presidential candidate Chris Christie told Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic. “Five guys with AK-47s could bring that city to its knees in 15 minutes. 15 minutes!”
Christie was arguing that the United States is “not yet” as vulnerable as Europe, which seems untrue. Or if it is true, the difference is in the five guys; it seems not to be as easy to get a team of experienced militant fighters into New York as Paris. But the AK-47s, we have covered. You can buy one from one of the gun stores where the alleged San Bernardino killers reportedly did their shopping, if you want.
Either way, ISIS has not yet demonstrated operational capabilities in this country beyond the capabilities available to the ordinary American. The San Bernardino killing was, by our standards, an ordinary one—toward the high end, body-count-wise, but otherwise unspectacular. It was not a coordinated assault like Paris or Mumbai. Except for the Facebook message in which one of the alleged killers pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, it mostly played out as a workplace shooting. It belonged to a tradition dating back to the days when Osama bin Laden was still busy fighting the Soviets on our behalf.
And in that light, what difference does the ISIS connection make? If Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik professed a political motive for their killing spree, so did Jerad and Amanda Miller last year in Las Vegas, yelling about the revolution as they left a Gadsden flag on the bodies of the police officers they’d murdered. If Farook and Malik had a cache of undetonated homemade bombs, so did lots of high school students.
Before the FBI had come up with the international terrorism angle, the stories about San Bernardino could have been patched together from prior stories. Did Farook come from “an unstable, broken home amid allegations of marital abuse”? No, that was Dylann Storm Roof, the accused Charleston shooter (from the URL: “suspects-life-troubled-road-radicalization”). Farook’s father
was an alcoholic and could be violent, capable of lashing out at his wife and children, according to statements his mother, Rafia Farook, made in a series of divorce proceedings beginning in 2006. The father, also named Syed Farook, called his wife names, screamed at his children, hurled home appliances and, at the worst moments, grew so combative that his children had to step between him and his wife, she asserted.
What would we learn from the San Bernardino suspects picking up the ISIS flag that we didn’t learn from the Las Vegas killers waving the Gadsden flag, or from Roof wearing the Rhodesian flag on his jacket? They all inhabited the same nation.