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San Bernardino massacre aftermath: A culture of fear?

The recent mass shootings, and the wall-to-wall coverage thereof in the media, have instilled in many Americans the sense that we are, again, at war. Still unresolved, though, is whom is the war with and what is it based on; we all want a robust defense, after all, but where do you throw up the barricades?

There is a difference between a state of protection to safeguard a population and one to keep others out. When government cultivates a culture of ‘public trust’ it can lead to a culture of mistrust of the other, rather than state cohesion and peace. Defending against a common enemy is one thing, so call it that. Not a ‘state of protection.’

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It does not help the American Muslim community that San Bernardino shooter Tashfeen Malik pledged allegiance to Islamic State on Facebook, as reported by Greg Botelho and Ben Brumfield of CNN:

Investigators think that as the San Bernardino, Calif., attack was happening, Tashfeen Malik posted a pledge of allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr Baghdadi on Facebook, three U.S. officials familiar with the investigation told CNN.

Malik's post was made on an account with a different name, one U.S. official said. The officials did not explain how they knew Malik made the post.

"This is looking more and more like self-radicalization," a law enforcement official said.

Another official said authorities haven't ruled out that others may have influenced this radical view. In addition, the law enforcement source said investigators have a greater focus on whether the shooting occurred after a workplace issue with religion.

It is hard not to ‘other’ a whole community that is seen as the source of terrorism worldwide. In fact, this makes it quite easy for politicians to build a solid fortress around the Muslim community in the name of safety and trust.

France pledged to protect its people more assiduously after the Paris attacks. That protection against the ‘other’ has resulted in raids, banned protests, the shutting down of religious ceremony and multiple house arrests. Amy Goodman of Democracy Now reports, including a conversation with Yasser Louati, a spokesperson and head of the International Relations Desk for the Collective Against Islamophobia in France.

French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve announced Wednesday that authorities had carried out more than 2,200 raids since a state of emergency was declared following the Nov. 13 attacks that killed 130 people. Under the state of emergency, French police can raid any home without judicial oversight. In addition, police have held 263 people for questioning – nearly all have been detained. An additional 330 people are under house arrest, and three mosques have been shut down. The vast majority of those targeted in the raids have been Muslim.

Yasser Louati: Because all this, you know, retaliation from the government is spiraling out of control. Of course, to implement that they said we are going to target the Muslim minority, and all Muslims don’t worry. It’s just a tiny fraction of radicals amongst you without defining of what being a radical means. Now, once the Muslim minority bears the brunt of the retaliations, we had the COP21 coming, and now they have raided, for example, a farm selling organic food. They raided a place where you had, you know, ecologists militants, and now people are being scared of how far can the government take all these measures?

From Paris to San Bernardino, there is a need for states to protect, which incites a culture of fear around who the state is protecting against. In this case, it is the Muslim community. Politicians across the country are calling for protection at all costs. Here are a few examples:

Gov. Jerry Brown on Wednesday, via CBSLA.com

“Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims’ families and everyone affected by the brutal attack,” Brown said in a statement. “California will spare no effort in bringing these killers to justice.”

French President Francois Hollande on Nov. 14, according to The Washington Post

“We have, on my decision, mobilized all forces possible to neutralize the terrorists and make all concerned areas safe. I have also asked for military reinforcements. They are currently in the Paris area, to ensure that no new attack can take place. I have also called a cabinet meeting that will be held in a few minutes.

What the terrorists want is to scare us and fill us with dread. There is indeed reason to be afraid. There is dread, but in the face of this dread, there is a nation that knows how to defend itself, that knows how to mobilize its forces and, once again, will defeat the terrorists.

I ask you to keep all your trust in what we can do with the security forces to protect our nation from terrorist acts. Long live the Republic and long live France."

There’s been plenty of speculation since the Paris attacks about Islamic State creating sleeper cells, possibly by smuggling militants into countries in the guise of Syrian refugees. Islamic State advances this idea itself on social media, although anything and everything purportedly said by the group needs to be consumed with a large grain of salt.

Still, K.C. Verma at The Wire warned about a new type of terrorist in late November, shortly after the Paris attacks:

But now we are truly entering the era of ‘retail’ terrorism – attacks launched by individuals or groups who consider themselves  to be ‘franchisees’ of ISIS.  The lone wolf was comparatively a novice. In contrast, the Daesh returnee could well be a battle-hardened veteran, trained in the use of sophisticated instruments of terror. These individuals represent an important challenge to the intelligence agencies, requiring identification, monitoring, tracking, interception and debriefing of not just own nationals but also ostensible refugees from the Levant.

The more disturbing notion raised by the San Bernardino shootings is that Islamic State doesn’t need to sneak anyone into a country – its militants can recruit themselves. Here’s CNN’s take from early Friday:

A law enforcement official said it appeared that Wednesday's mass shooting -- which left 14 people dead and 21 wounded before the two attackers, Malik and her husband, Syed Rizwan Farook, were killed in a shootout with police -- may have been inspired by ISIS.

But none of the officials said that ISIS directed or ordered the attack. ISIS has called for people worldwide to launch attacks in its name, but isn't known to have claimed credit for what happened in San Bernardino. 

Islamic State is hardly the first group whose nihilist ideology acts as catnip to the disturbed. Talking Points Memo offered this observation about Dylann Roof, the 21-year-old white supremacist suspected of gunning down nine blacks in a Charleston, S.C., church in July.

Mark Pitcavage, who tracks extremists as the director of investigative research for the Anti-Defamation League, talked to TPM on Saturday about some key details in the manifesto.

For one, Pitcavage said, it appeared that the author had little to no interaction with organized hate groups, other than through the internet. The manifesto mentioned "research," Wikipedia and white nationalist websites, but there were no references to real-life interactions with other extremists.

"It's clear from this that he's self-radicalized," Pitcavage said. "He only talks about educating himself... This seems like a loner, like an introverted loner."

Governments need to protect their citizenry, of course, especially after an attack. But it's also incumbent on leaders to bring people together and rebuild trust. One of the challenges posed by the San Bernardino attacks is figuring out how to do that in the face of an ideology that is operating in the shadows, threatening both our safety and our unity.

Kingsley is a Coro Fellow at The Times, and Healey is the Deputy Editorial Page Editor.

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