The Ft. Hood Massacre in November 2009. The American Consulate in Benghazi in September 2012. The Boston Marathon Bombing in April 2013. San Bernardino in December 2015. All were acts of terror on American soil, but San Bernardino is different. Very different.
In July 2009, Major Nidal Hasan, a devout Muslim, bought a high capacity, automatic weapon, and practiced shooting it. In November, ostensibly unhinged about a deployment to Afghanistan, Hasan walked into the Soldier Readiness Center—where for several years personnel had experienced his Islamic rantings—and after a shout of Allahu Akbar—systematically murdered every person in uniform he saw. Thirteen brave people fell to his bullets and thirty more were wounded. At trial, he claimed to be a mujahedeen in jihad against all American soldiers.
The Benghazi attack is not ordinarily included this list of terroristic acts, but because it was an unprovoked, intentional slaughter on American soil, it should be. It occurred where the Obama Administration had earlier effected regime change, and where—one might have hoped—radical Islamic terrorism might not have been directed against American liberators.
Boston’s Tsarnaev brothers came to this country at ages 9 and 16, and self-radicalized until they primed everyday pressure cookers to murder three, including little Martin Richard, and injure over 250 innocents—people they considered “collateral damage” to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In San Bernardino, Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik slaughtered 14 and wounded 21, the details of which have become horrifically familiar. They sound so much like so many other terroristic acts. San Bernardino was different, however, and this difference makes it the most terrifying of all.
Syed Farook knew every single person he cold-bloodedly shot and killed. He worked with them, celebrated birthdays and holidays with them, had lunch with them. His victims had thrown a baby shower for his newborn child. That his wife had not attended that gathering for her baby, kept a cold distance from his associates, and pledged fealty to ISIS all suggest it was she who radicalized this man born in Chicago and raised in Southern California—one of the assimilated. This was not a radical born of poverty or deprivation of any kind. Syed Farook chose to become a man burning with religious hatred.
It is possible Nidal Hasan knew one or more of his victims, but to him it didn’t matter. What mattered was that they wore the uniform of the United States Army. Benghazi and Boston were anonymous, faceless killings. What’s true about all of these and San Bernardino, perhaps, is that none of them were specifically targeted, by date, time, or place, in advance. They were all chance opportunities but accessible to radicals infused with a religious hatred so intense the slightest social provocation would yank their hair-triggered vengeance.
What 9-11 and each of the subsequent attacks teaches us is that terror has become close and personal, all the way from the iconic Twin Towers to a hometown holiday party. The Islamic radicals want us to know there is no safe place, no place where any of us can say, “It’s not my problem.”
Should Farook’s cold killing heighten our fear? Should we be suspicious of everyone of Arabic heritage? Should we deny our welcome to those yearning to breath free? Of course not!
Yet, San Bernardino must heighten awareness of our surroundings, of people’s behavior, when suddenly, it doesn’t fit the circumstances. We must be in the moment, as never before, which means we have to look up from our cellphones. In restaurants. In subways. In Waiting Rooms. In Washington and Walla Walla. Everywhere. Unlike, “Remember Pearl Harbor,” “See something? Say something!” isn’t a saying for the ages. It’s a byword for everyday living. It’s our welcome to the Age of Terror.
All of this requires us to have a much more thoughtful approach to immigration than a gushing, “Give us your tired, your poor…” We live in a different time than when our grandparents crossed the ocean, when they came by the millions from all over Europe and Asia. Some met initial resistance to their ways, their religions, and their color. What each made clear to themselves and to those already here, however, was that they intended to become Americans and nothing else.
Each group—the Irish, Italians, Poles, Germans, Russians, Finns, Swedes, Scots, Brits, Chinese, Filipinos, Koreans, Japanese, and all the others—landed here with little or nothing, and asked for nothing but the chance to breathe free and become part of the USA. Each first generation clung together by race, ethnicity, or religion, and slowly began to shed former allegiances they had had. They put away their pictures of the Kaiser, King George, and Sun Yat Sen. Very few felt fidelity to Hitler, Mussolini, or Hirohito, or later in Stalin and his ilk. They became Americans and were willing to die for the privilege.
There is no inalienable right to become one of us, but we always take those who bring a burning desire to be like us. Yet, many Americans, for the first time in a century, have begun to have doubts about the motives of some who say they want to be part of us. We, who take no military direction from the Vatican, Canterbury, Tibet, or any other center of religious fervor, have little choice but to hold back our natural, welcoming impulses for people who may put the terrorizing words of a strange Imam above the rights granted to all by the Creator.
Despite Europe’s piety on the matter, its management of Islamic immigration has been particularly maladroit. For ourselves, we must determine if Islamic newcomers truly understand that for us, some words we sing is our everlasting prayer for everyone who calls this land home:
God shed his grace on thee
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!