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Column: Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik’s inexplicable path toward violence

Inland Regional Center

Angel Meler-Baumgartner 11, who was a member of the Inland Regional Center where Wednesday’s mass shooting occurred, attends a vigil at San Manuel Stadium in San Bernardino on Thursday.

(Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times)

Was it radical religious terrorism or murderous workplace revenge?

Are guns the problem or would more guns have been the solution?

Do we close our borders to people whose religion we don’t trust, or treat them with compassion and tolerance?

Those questions are bound to keep swirling around an investigation that’s managed to explain precisely what happened this week in San Bernardino but cannot tell us why the shooting happened or what it means.

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The mystery, the contradictions and the breach of convention make the holiday party siege particularly unsettling:

A quiet, accommodating government worker and his reclusive wife don black masks and battle gear and spray a crowd of his co-workers with semiautomatic rifle fire, killing 14 and wounding 21.

They leave behind few clues and no manifesto — just an arsenal of ammunition and home-made bombs, and a 6-month-old daughter who will never know her parents as anything other than misguided monsters.

The FBI is leaning toward terrorism as an explanation. The husband, Syed Rizwan Farook, had once been in touch with individuals from two Muslim terror groups. The wife, Tashfeen Malik, had pledged allegiance to an Islamic State leader in a Facebook post.

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FULL COVERAGE: San Bernardino shooting | Shooting updates

The couple may have been “radicalized” by extremist propaganda, officials said Friday. But there’s no evidence that they are part of an official terror network.

It’s a sign of the times that I was relieved when I heard that.

That means I can lump them in with the right-wing nut accused of shooting up a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado last month. Or the Confederate-flag-loving loser charged with killing nine people in a South Carolina church last spring.

That we can stop scanning the crowd for that wild-eyed white guy in the movie theater — and give ourselves permission to worry again about the brown-skinned man sporting a beard or the woman wearing a veil.

::

I remember making the rounds of local mosques 14 years ago, while we were reeling from the horror of Sept. 11. I moved among silent, hollow-eyed penitents, shocked that their brethren could do such an evil thing in the name of their religion.

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As I put my notebook away and headed for my car, an anguished mother stopped me and took my hands in hers.

“Will they blame our children for this?” she asked, her voice trembling and her eyes red.

I didn’t know what to say then.

Today I’m afraid I’d have to answer yes.

It uncomplicates things for us to consider Farook and Malik a solitary pair of hate-filled zealots, jealous of our freedom-loving ways.

But there’s no making sense of the bloodbath they caused, and no salve for the pain of victims, survivors, friends and families whose lives will never be the same.

The early accounts were hard to stomach and impossible to synthesize.

It appears to be the body of a woman, a TV news reporter announced incredulously, after a shootout with police left Malik dead in the street.

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She’s wearing a red bra.

I hadn’t known anything about the assailants until then; I was prepared for just about anything but that.

Later I’d find it sad — then subversively ironic — that a woman so modest she only ventured out totally covered, with only her eyes showing, would be immortalized in lingerie, her combat garb askew.

::

On Friday, the family’s attorney called Malik a devoted housewife and mother and said Farook had been teased at work because he wore a beard, which is considered a sign of religious fealty among devout Muslims.

Did an argument with a co-worker spark the massacre? Was Farook, born in Chicago and raised in Riverside, brainwashed by his Pakistani bride?

Or was his rage — and reliance on guns — brewing for years and distinctly American?

Court records suggest Farook grew up in a home ruled by violence and racked by mental illness. His father was abusive and threatened “to kill himself on a daily basis,” Farook’s mother told the court.

By the time Farook was in his 20s, “doing target practice” had become one of his favorite pastimes, according to the profile he posted on an online dating site — where he was seeking “someone who takes her religion very seriously.”

He believed he’d found that in Malik. But he was wrong. What they did was evil, not Islam.

sandy.banks@latimes.com

Twitter: @SandyBanksLAT

MORE ON SAN BERNARDINO SHOOTING

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As details of San Bernardino shooters emerge, a possible extremist link is investigated


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