Thursday, January 21st, 2021

The San Bernardino Massacre: Perceptions, Propaganda, And Blowback

Published on December 7, 2015 by   ·   No Comments


The reaction to the San Bernardino shooting in which 14 people were killed and several more wounded is a textbook case of confirmation bias. The first reactions came from the liberal wing of the Twittersphere, heavily represented by “mainstream” journalists, who immediately took the incident to be a classic “mass shooting” of the Sandy Hook-Columbine variety, and it didn’t take long for the finger-wagging to begin. At once pro-gun control and anti-religious, the meme went out into cyberspace: “thoughts and prayers” aren’t enough, we need to crack down on gun ownership in this country. The front page of the New York Daily Newsexpressed the left-liberal party line: “GOD ISN’T FIXING THIS: As latest batch of innocent Americans are left lying in pools of blood, cowards who could truly end gun scourge continue to hide behind meaningless platitudes.”

As it turned out, however, the guns used by Syed Farook and Tashveen Malik, the two perpetrators, were bought legally – and their weaponry consisted of a lot more than mere guns. The editors of the Daily News didn’t wait for the facts because they didn’t care about the facts. They just wanted to make a point – one which turned out to be not only wrong but also completely beside the point.

In the same city, in the offices of a very similar – if ideologically opposite – tabloid, the editors of the New York Postwere jumping the gun in an entirely different direction. As the ethnicity and religious affiliation of the attackers came out, they ran with a simple two-word headline: “MUSLIM KILLERS,” with a modifying qualifier: “Terror eyed as couple slaughters 14 in Calif.” As more information came out, however, the editors pulled back, and the final edition was quite different: “MURDER MISSION,” read the headline, with a neutral supplementary: “Shooters slaughter 14 in Calif.” These two editions were published hours after the incident, and only a few hours apart – a testament to the dangers of jumping to conclusions.

This reversal is explained by the subsequent release of yet more information about the perpetrators: Syed Farook worked at the San Bernardino Department of Public Health, which had rented a room at the facility where the massacre took place. The event was a holiday party, which Farook attended, but left early after a reported altercation of some kind. He returned with Malik, his wife, armed to the teeth, and the slaughter commenced.

These facts would appear to point in a different direction entirely from the scenario painted by the Post’s initial edition, and so the imagery conjured by the new headline went from that of the rampaging “Muslim Killers” to the “Murder Mission” of what appeared to be a case of workplace violence.

That’s what I thought around midnight last night, when I tweeted my tentative opinion that the workplace violencescenario seemed to be the most likely. My main reason was the nature of the target: why, I asked, would terrorists choose the Christmas party of the San Bernardino Public Health Department as the latest object of their wrath? In addition, reports of a dispute at the event involving Farook seemed to indicate that scenario: he got angry, came back, and started shooting. There were also reports of “turmoil” inside the department where he worked; several people had left amid rumors of disputes with management, and the fact that Farooq and his accomplice were targeting a very specific group of people – and not, say, a military facility, or even a soft target like a mall – seemed to corroborate this conclusion.

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