Hot on the heels of the Ohio State University incident that Donald Trump declared would not have happened if one particular Somali refugee had not been allowed to enter the country, comes media coverage of the commemoration vigils for the San Bernardino massacre that, which occurred a year ago at the Inland Regional Center; 14 people were killed and 22 wounded. The shooting rampage, carried out by a Muslim Bonnie-and-Clyde duo, Syed Farook and his wife Tashfeen Malik. They were apparently angered by the “requirement” that Farook—who was employed at the Center—attend a training session in a room which was supposedly adorned with various symbols of Christianity. To “understand” what this means to some people, in some Muslim countries, converting to Christianity is the greatest apostasy that a Muslim can commit, bring and requires the death penalty.
But their actions had to be based on something beyond this “rationalization,” since Christmas trees and ornaments have little to do with religion in this country. Could their motivation be as simple as such secular banalities? It was just too senseless for the given reason. The question that must be asked is if a majority Christian society and its accouterments disturbed their “sensibilities” so, then why did they come to the country, or better yet, why did they stay? They surely knew what to “expect” when they came to this country. If they came here with the “intent” of causing casualties, there would be less question of how to define their action. But this scenario is something we shouldn’t automatically assume to be “true,” which people like Trump apparently do.
The answer to the question why the San Bernardino and OSU attackers acted as they did is most likely began as something as “mundane” as feeling “unwelcome” and out-of-place here, not because they secretly desired to cause mayhem. They had heard politicians and people like Trump repeatedly demonize and dehumanize them. Perhaps they had seen or heard people who disparaged them as Muslims. Likely they felt, or perceived, a general atmosphere of “hate.” They only became “radicalized” into an act of “retaliation” for these real and perceived slights and hate from society at large—and this is also something that can obviously be ascribed to the motivations of non-Muslims, like the Columbine shooters, who were seen as “weird” and were ostracized in the social setting they existed in.
This leads to the question of what do we mean by an “act of terrorism” as opposed to the common-run “massacre” by a “crazy” individual. The act of terrorism usually implies a political motive to exact retaliation for some grievance experienced by an “outside” group or entity, while the typical mass killer is nursing some real or perceived personal grievance, usually against an individual or a group individuals. The “terrorist” typically “plans” and attack over certain period of time, and targets victims he or she has never met or does not know; this was of course the case in the Oklahoma City and 9-11 events. But in the “massacre” event that is more common, a killer simply “snaps,” and his or her victims usually involves people he or she knows personally.
Of course, there is an occasion overlap of the two scenarios, and it is not always “clear” where the line is drawn. For example, there is the continued claim that the Orlando gay club massacre that killed 49 people and wounded 53 was a “terrorist” attack against gays, when the reality was that the shooter was himself a gay man (although married) who felt personally “slighted” by the club’s largely Hispanic clientele. He meted out death in “retaliation” against as many Hispanics—not necessarily gay men—as he could. He also was no doubt influenced (or felt “justified”) by the anti-Hispanic rhetoric of those like Trump.
On the other hand, some people shy away from calling an incident a “terrorist” act when it is. For example, when Benjamin Nathaniel Smith, the leader of a neo-Nazi group called the World Church of the Creator, in 1999 went on his two-state rampage in which his victims included Jews, blacks and one Asian man (one of the dead being basketball coach Ricky Byrdsong, killed as he was walking with his two children), the media and right-wing politicians and commentators were loath to call this a domestic terrorist act. Why? Because like in the Oklahoma City bombing—in which the FBI knew that the white supremacist group in Elohim City was likely assisting Timothy McVeigh in the act—few wanted to admit that there is “native” sponsorship of terrorism—meaning white supremacists—that plan or inspire such acts. It has to remain the “lone, crazed” killer with a “personal” agenda, if it can’t be blamed on dark-skinned “terrorists.”
Because there is this “confusion” over what is or isn’t a “terrorist” act, we are allowing Trump and his henchpersons to muddle the picture in order to advance a nativist agenda. It has reached the point where in many minds there is no difference between a crime and a “terrorist” act if it is committed by someone who isn’t a “real” American—meaning anyone who by some definition by a paranoid nativist or xenophobe should never have been allowed in country, merely because of race or ethnicity. But outside a handful, people no matter what their race or ethnicity just want to live and let live. Is it really wise to allow bigoted blowhards like Trump, and his chief enforcers Jeff Sessions, Steve Bannon (and, good god, not Sarah Palin?) and others of that ilk to be the ones who make that determination?