Wednesday's shooting in San Bernadino is both heartbreaking and infuriating. Heartbreaking because of the devastating loss and pain it has inflicted on the victims and their families. Infuriating because it is an act of malice so destructive, so conducive of strife and division, and at the same time so utterly pointless, that one can not but reflect on it with anger.
The misery of the event itself is compounded by the inevitable absurdity of the political discourse that has followed in its wake. In this instance we do not have to puzzle over the murderers' associations or thought process to determine whether what they did is an act of terrorism. Their actions can be read at face value. If this were purely some sort of personal workplace vendetta, why would the murderers leave explosives to kill (or even to frighten, if in fact the devices were deliberately nonfunctional) first responders arriving at the scene? What could they have been aiming at, other than the targeting of random civilians to incite fear? Whatever motivated their depraved acts, the acts themselves constitute the very definition of terrorism.
The questions that pundits are asking in the wake of this crime are indicative of how little we have come to understand the world more than fourteen years after 9/11. Why would the murderer's target co-workers? Why, given the armaments they had accumulated, would they not seek a venue where they could cause more loss? What did they hope to achieve?
These murderers targeted their co-workers because they were terrorists, and that was precisely the means by which to create the most terror. Not merely terror, but sustained and destructive paranoia. By giving no overt signs of their "radicalization" and by leaving no explicit indication of their "beliefs," these criminals sowed the seeds of suspicion and fear. Does the potential for this kind of violence lurk in my Muslim co-worker or neighbor? Do I need to worry about the mosque in my community? The effectiveness of this strategy is immediately apparent: the mosque of which the San Bernadino attackers were members has already begun to receive death threats. This is the diabolical logic of Wednesday's terrorist attack. Whether it was the idea of the murderers themselves or of some distant member of ISIS or Al Qaeda with whom they were in contact is of little consequence.
Given that this was an act of terror, how should we as Americans respond? The first step we must take is to clearly understand the strategy of the enemy, our failure in which regard is manifest in our anguished search for a motive or a larger plan. Monstrous as it is, the attack in San Bernadino boils down to one more step in a long con that groups like ISIS have been running on the US and its allies for decades. We are perpetually inclined to believe that violence on this scale must be in service to some larger "constructive" goal: the establishment of a new order or the creation of some new institution.
But none of the groups we have been fighting have anything approaching a long-term blueprint for change. Even ISIS with its jumped-up "caliphate" are basically glorified oil thieves and gangsters. There is no "there" there. The terror that these groups sow is not done in service of anything remotely resembling a "People's Soviet" or new "Reich." The terror is an end unto itself. Because ISIS and Al Qaeda have no achievable ultimate goals, the best they can hope to do is to perpetuate themselves, and because there is no enduring benefit that these groups can offer anyone as an inducement to join, they must enlist their enemies to drive members into their ranks. This is the essence of the long con: create terror so as to create oppression; so as to create oppressed Muslims willing to sow more terror; and so on. None of the strategists behind this program have any concrete idea of where this cycle will lead (one imagines that in occasional reflective moments they console themselves that such a problem can be left with God), they are only resolved to keep the wheel spinning.
If this is the nature of the threat, how can or should we respond? Since the ultimate goal of these attacks is terror, the most effective response is simply to refuse to be afraid. If we treat one-another with fear and suspicion, if we deprive one-another of basic rights and dignity, or if we stoop to acts of sectarian violence, the terrorists achieve the only victory of which they are capable. If, however, we simply remain determined to live with one-another, work together,
communicate, and treat one-another with fairness and respect, the