News & Politics

And Now for Some Sanity on the Media Coverage of San Bernardino

Armored vehicles surround an SUV following a shootout in San Bernardino, Calif., Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2015. The scene followed a military-style attack that killed multiple people and wounded others at a California center that serves people with developmental disabilities, authorities said. (KNBC via AP)

That would come from my friend Caleb Carr, celebrated author of The Alienist and noted military historian. And in the pages of Vanity Fair, no less:

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?

Please do yourself a favor and read the whole thing. Because it’s by such an astute and elegant writer — clear-eyed and analytical, rather than partisan or bombastic — it’s sure to please neither the left nor the right, whose immediate repairing to battle stations was once of the salient features of the entire episode.

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, 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.”
Now that’s the mark of a great writer.