The Frantic Media Response to San Bernardino Is Making Us Less Safe

December 9, 2015 in Current Events, News by RBN Staff

Vanity Fair
|  | DECEMBER 9, 2015 2:49 PM

Inside Syed Farook’s home in Redlands earlier in the week, as media members search through Farook’s belongings. By Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post/Getty Images.

In the wake of the shooting at the Inland Regional Center last week, many media outlets reported each new development with a familiar sense of hyperventilated horror. Terrorism expert Caleb Carr explains why that is a danger in itself.

You had to witness it from the very start to comprehend the fervor of it: televised reports of a mass shooting at a center for the disabled in San Bernardino, California, by two “figures” in “black combat gear and masks,” which had ultimately left 14 innocent people dead. Ominous statements soon screamed from television-news outlets: law enforcement had “no idea” where the shooters had “vanished” to in their “dark SUV”; and, just as ominously, there were reports of “AK-47-style weapons” having been used.

This last bit of intel contained the first of the grossly irresponsible and unconfirmed media buzzwords: the Avtomat Kalashnikov 47 automatic rifle is the global weapon of choice for insurgents, revolutionaries, and, yes, terrorists, both because of its durability and because Russia has for decades flooded the developing world with fantastic quantities of the 7.62 x 39 mm assault rifle. Thus if AK-47s were used in San Bernardino, it seemed a dead giveaway that foreign or foreign-supplied terrorists, likely Islamists, had been at work.

Then the contradictions began to come in. The guns had not been AKs at all, but Armalite 15s, firing .223-caliber Remington ammunition. Hardly anything could be more American. The basis of the army’s M-16, the AR-15 is the favorite gun of everyone from average gun nuts to survivalists to domestic terrorists in this country. Certain media channels, now unable to raise a panic through firearms, quickly wheeled to another topic. The shooters had left an improvised explosive device, what some called an “I.E.D.” (buzzword), behind at the scene, intending to detonate it after they left. But here, again, the “I.E.D.” turned out to be only a black-powder pipe bomb, one easily made (far more easily than the already primitive chemical devices brewed by the Paris terrorists), which, critically, had failed to detonate.

Events soon overcame such nagging details. Law enforcement, it turned out, knew where that “dark SUV” had disappeared to, and a wild shoot-out took place that left the two presumed “terrorists” dead. Then came word that the shooters were Muslims. The first was Syed Rizwan Farook, a young, American-born employee of the San Bernardino County health department, and the other was his wife, Tashfeen Malik, a woman from (buzzword) Pakistan whom he’d met online. Farook had traveled to (buzzword) Saudi Arabia to fetch Malik and bring her into the United States on the appropriate visa, where her background had (buzz-phrase) “raised no flags” among authorities (though it turned out there was no reason why it should have). They had married, had a child, seemed like “polite” and “normal” people to their neighbors—yet eventually embarked on their suicidal killing spree. Not only that, but a “cache of arms” had been found in their apartment.

Up to this point, cable news had ginned up enough mayhem to make the American people fretfully wonder: Is this it? Is this the moment that ISIS, or perhaps our old nemesis al-Qaeda, brings their jihad back to American shores?

Reporters surround Doyle Miller, Farook’s landlord, outside of the family’s home.

By Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images.


As in the case of the Paris attacks, al-Qaeda could be quickly ruled out, if one knew its history. Well before his death, Osama bin Laden decreed that he did not want his martyrs to go after any more civilian targets in the Muslim world, and to date there has been no sign that this does not apply to Western targets, as well, (as the bombing of the C.I.A. station at Camp Chapman in Khost, Afghanistan, in 2009 indicated), and certainly not to so bizarrely counterproductive a target as a center for the disabled. This policy has been continued by bin Laden’s successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri; and while there are, of course, infamous al-Qaeda splinter groups, they are carefully watched—and no official connection to Farook and Malik could be established.

That left ISIS: surely, if this strange attack in San Bernardino had been the work of fighters “radicalized” by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s monstrous organization, that group would quickly come out with a claim of credit and congratulations, on the same media platform that they have used to take responsibility for other actions, most recently the Paris attacks and the downing of a Soviet jetliner over Egypt. And yet, for the first few days, there was only silence from Raqqa, Syria, ISIS’s capital, and on its preferred media channel of triumph, Telegram.

Then, further problems at the sensationalism mills. The claim that Syed Farook had been “radicalized” had initially been based simply on the use of a remote-control toy car to detonate his primitive pipe bomb, since instructions on how to use such innocent gadgets can be found in the pages of al-Qaeda’s instructional magazine, Inspire. Yet similar instructions for creating such detonation systems can be found in any of dozens of terrorist and anarchist handbooks, domestic and foreign, dating back decades. And, yes, he had had some contact with potentially minor characters on the Terrorist Watch List (who had not been charged), but these interactions were tracked and apparently dismissed. No matter. There was still that nagging point about Farook’s having been to Saudi Arabia. Yet, there Farook had only taken part in the ritual Muslim pilgrimage to the Black Stone in the Grand Mosque, in Mecca; and ISIS fighters are “radicalized” in Syria, not in ISIS’s Muslim nemesis Saudi Arabia. That left only Farook’s peculiar relationship to his Internet bride from Pakistan, and the cache of arms at their apartment.

The front pages of the New York Post and The New York Times on the week of the shootings.


On the subject of Tashfeen Malik, not only cable-news networks but far less sensationalist publications began to get in on the panic act: “San Bernardino Gunwoman Pledged Allegiance to ISIS, Officials Say,” cried The New York Times, before changing its headline. Yet if one read past the headline, Malik’s “pledge” was made on a Facebook page that, so far as anyone other than unnamed government sources are willing to say, did not include any oath of loyalty to al-Baghdadi himself: an error of omission that, for a terrorist as committed as Malik was increasingly painted as being, represented a glaring oversight.

As contradiction piled upon misinterpretation, one nagging fact inconsistent with other ISIS attacks kept resurfacing. Mr. Farook had not only been employed by the health department, which was celebrating its holiday party at the disability center, but had had an argument with his co-workers shortly before the shootings. The idea of a disgruntled-employee shooting spree had been circulated, but it had not generated much in the way of emotional response from the public, and had been discarded by the media; and indeed, the detail of the “cache of arms” at Farook’s apartment seemed to contradict it flatly. Yet that cache, it turned out, was soon revealed to be thousands of rounds of ammunition and 12 pipe bombs: again, an arresting number to most people, including the media, but small beer to law enforcement and counterterrorism officials—especially as the couple had not even been able to make the first pipe bomb go off.

Any official connection to international terrorism remained both unproven and inadequate. The F.B.I.—which, over the last 20 years, has largely abandoned many of its primary law-enforcement functions, especially criminal profiling, in favor of a focus on terrorist-hunting—finally declared that it was investigating the shooting as a “terrorist incident,” but also went on to say that there was “no indication” the couple were linked to any international terrorist group or even cell. The supposed connection to international terrorism propagated by news outlets was based only on circumstantial, desperately sought-for clues that led, in the end, very close to nowhere.

Despite all these frustrations, there continued to be no publicly discussed, adequate psychological profile of the guilty couple. Why, for instance, did they so blithely leave their young child with unsuspecting relatives before undertaking their spree? Is it even possible to determine a mental-health history for Tashfeen Malik? Was she unhappy in her Internet-arranged marriage? Was her husband? And what about reports that Farook grew up under a violently abusive father?

Farook, left, and his wife Tashfeen Malik, right.

Left, By Paul Buck/EPA/Corbis; Right, from FBI/Getty Images.


The decision of most media outlets not to pursue such investigations was based on one simple fact: they are based in reason, not fear—and it is fear that sells. It sells for an equally simple reason: the essential nature of paranoia—and make no mistake, when it comes to the idea of terrorists again striking this country, the great majority of American citizens have reached a level of pervasive dread, amply demonstrated in poll after poll, that amounts to paranoia—is to seek the very condition that embodies the imagined threat, and thereby relieve the unbearable tension of living in constant anxiety. The American media was thus sinking to the exploitation of public psychological weakness; and getting a lot of advertising dollars in the process.

It did not seem that the experience could get any more irrational or exploitative. But then, on Friday evening, came a particularly tragicomic chapter: a circus inside the apartment of the “terrorist couple,” during which reporters, following the building’s crowbar-wielding landlord into the scene, sifted through important, uncollected evidence, utterly contaminating the site. The F.B.I.—which had, in a move that shocked even many law-enforcement experts, already returned control of the apartment to the landlord—responded to the invasion by saying that it was “finished” searching the place; yet had they believed this to be an investigation of a truly international terrorist incident with national-security implications, does anyone believe they would have permitted such criminal buffoonery?

Finally, on Saturday morning, the paranoiac’s delight seemed to arrive: ISIS was claiming credit for the San Bernardino attack, Internet headlines cried. Yet even here, if one paused to listen to sane voices, there were discrepancies with other ISIS claims that were significant. Not only was the “claim” made, at least initially, through a low-level Twitter hashtag, but it made no reference to ISIS or al-Baghdadi having ordered or even sanctioned the attack. Nor did ISIS declare Farook and Malik “knights” or “warriors,” as it had done with all the other attackers it had radicalized and dispatched abroad. Meaning, in short, that ISIS was simply cashing in on what seemed a fait accompli, and trying to reap its greatest potential: that a terrified America would now go into an anti-Muslim backlash that would only encourage other American Muslims to follow the San Bernardino couple’s example.

And therein lies the rub. People generally remember the first part of Franklin Roosevelt’s stirring admonition in his first inaugural address—that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”—but few recall how he qualified that fear: “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror.” Yet if we now wish to avoid the kind of knee-jerk response to an obscure incident toward which the American media—which should be deeply ashamed of itself—has been herding us, those words would be a very good place to start. In the end, this may well have been an example of “self-radicalized terrorism”: but qualify that phrase psychologically for a moment and what you are left with are the unexplained individual actions of two badly misshapen minds, whose “self-radicalization”—which the F.B.I. is now trying to assert took place over a long period, so long, indeed, that it allegedly and paradoxically predates the rise of the Islamic State to which Tashfeen Malik pledged her allegiance. It appears to have consisted mainly, if not exclusively, of visits to extremist Web sites and private (so private that the F.B.I. cannot or will not provide actual proof of them) conversations while they were “dating” on the Internet. Yet when a legal gun owner (and the parallel to Gilberto Valle, the infamous “cannibal cop” in New York City, is of use here) watches violent videos, has fantasy-driven conversations on the Internet with similarly bizarre characters, then begins to stalk victims (as in Valle’s case) or even to kill people, we don’t say that he was a “self-traumatized murderer.” There is always a deeper answer; there is always a psychological motivation that sets the entire process in motion in the first place.

Screengrabs of the live coverage.


Farook and Malik, the “committed Islamists,” ultimately decided to end their young lives in a very American way: by going down in a gun-fueled blaze of supposed glory. And just at the end, Tashfeen Malik may indeed have decided to drape the couple’s shared dementia with the black flag of Islamist jihadism, but that does not explain their behavior. Nor does it change the fact that the recent near-jihadist, fear-mongering fervor of the American media should concern us as much, if not more. That is unless—or until—a plot that represents a clear and present danger to U.S. national security is uncovered. Because one day, just such a broader and more vital threat is going to materialize. If the public, led by a frantic news media, has cried wolf every time a mass shooter has screamed “Allahu akbar!”—just as some have cried “baby killers!” at abortion-clinic killings, or irrational utterances at other shootings, without it implying that the nation is under attack—we are not going to be ready for it.

Some may ask if all of this does not represent mere rationalization and semantics. Far from it. In the battle against ISIS, we currently have two assets that other nations of the West do not. We are an assimilative society, one that has integrated rather than ghettoized or demonized our Muslim population. Those citizens have been an enormous resource in fighting Islamist terrorism, but if Americans whipped into a fervor by an irresponsible media now begin to look askance at every Muslim, or at every person that might ethnically resemble a Muslim, and begin to call police with spurious allegations by the thousands, we can count on losing that advantage.

The second asset is the actual military campaign we are fighting against the Islamic State throughout the Middle East and North Africa. This is not a large-scale invasion, nor can it be. Our ground forces are still trying to recover from the foolish attempts to occupy rather than seek and kill our particular enemies in Iraq and Afghanistan. The latter is a campaign that is still draining us badly, and so our efforts against ISIS are what they should always have been in the Middle East: cunning, low profile, and effective. In open or tacit conjunction with the few groups in the region we know we can rely on—most notably the Kurds, but, increasingly, Shi’ite militias with whom we should have been working in conjunction since the invasion of Iraq—comparatively small units of American Special Forces are successfully guiding American air power to effective, and not just emotionally satisfying, targets, while at the same time shrinking and strangling the Islamic State on the ground. If frightened Americans now begin to shriek for “Boots on the ground!,” as many conservative congressmen and media outlets would like them to do, we will walk into ISIS’s trap as surely as we will by marginalizing our American Muslim population. The twin goals of the Islamic State—panic in the U.S. and a new American army to fight in the open in Syria—must be resisted, and the media must form part of the leadership that guides us to resist them, rather than herding us into their maw.

Mid-search in Syed and Tashfeen’s baby room.

By Chris Carlson/AP Images.


On Sunday night, President Barack Obama told the nation that he wishes us to adopt and/or maintain these steady postures. If he is serious—and he has always been far better at calling for action than fighting to see it realized—his first steps will be to withdraw American ground forces from Afghanistan; severely restrict the Predator drone program that has caused so many civilian casualties in the Muslim world; overhaul the visa system that still allows too many psychologically as well as politically questionable people—Muslim and non-Muslim—into this country; actively campaign for (rather than merely preach) tightened restrictions on the sale of assault weapons; and finally exhort American law enforcement to turn away from reactive paramilitary tactics and get back to the kind of basic community patrolling that can detect ripples of trouble before they must be answered by hails of rifle fire. The president mentioned at least a few such moves in his unusually detailed address; he cannot succeed if he does not undertake them all.

In the end, however, there can be no complete “defense” against the nebulous creature called “self-radicalized terror,” any more than there can be against mass shootings by white Christian fundamentalists or simple madmen. And simple madmen Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik may have been, for all their “self-radicalization.” But the steady, calm openness of our society has always been our greatest defense against such characters, by repudiating the secrecy and oppression upon which extremism and madness feed. As F.D.R. said of “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror,” it “paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” If, now, we can stop listening to media corporations that profit off of such paralysis, “this great nation will endure as it has endured, will revive, and will prosper.”

Caleb Carr, author of The Lessons of Terror: A History of Warfare Against Civilians, is a military historian who frequently writes and lectures on matters of national security, including terrorism.