The Slatest

If San Bernardino Was a Terrorist Attack, It Was an Extremely Strange One

A police officer guards a police line as officers prepare to raid the home of one or more suspects of a mass shooting at the Inland Regional Center on Dec. 2, 2015.

Photo by David McNew/Getty Images

We don’t yet know what motivated the now-dead suspects Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik to kill 14 people in San Bernardino, California, on Wednesday, but that certainly hasn’t stopped the speculation. In a speech Thursday morning at the Republican Jewish Coalition forum, presidential candidate Ted Cruz said, “all of us are deeply concerned that this is yet another manifestation of terrorism—radical Islamic terrorism here at home.”

Law enforcement authorities haven’t ruled terrorism out as a motivation, but for now, most of this speculation seems to be based on the fact that the killers were Muslims. The U.S.-born Farook, of Pakistani heritage, had traveled to Saudi Arabia earlier this year, returning with his wife, Malik, whose nationality is still unknown. Farook was a practicing Muslim but, according to acquaintances, rarely discussed his religion. Likely anticipating a backlash, the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Los Angeles quickly organized a press conference with Farook’s brother, Farhan Khan, and urged the public not to jump to conclusions. “Is it work? Is it rage-related? Is it mental illness? Is it extreme ideology? We just don’t know,” said Hussam Ayloush, director of CAIR in Los Angeles.

As a further reminder to be cautious about initial reports, there were a number of false rumors circulating widely on social media Wednesday night, including one tweeted and then deleted by a Los Angeles Times reporter that the shooter was a Qatari national whose name was suspiciously similar to Turkey President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Rita Katz, director of the SITE Intelligence Group, which tracks online extremist activity, noted on Twitter that the Jihadist Internet has been “mostly quiet,” in contrast to the chatter after most explicitly jihadist attacks, which have been celebrated by supporters online. U.S. officials also noted to Reuters that the attack “differed in key ways from attacks like those perpetrated by the group known as Islamic State or other Jihadists.” Generally those attacks target symbolically significant locations—Times Square, Fort Hood, a Muhammad cartoon contest—rather than a little-known location like the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino. And while it is still early in the investigation, Farook and Malik also don’t appear to have left any statement or clue as to their motivation, also unusual for an ideologically motivated terrorist attack. Farook, who worked at the county health department, had reportedly angrily left a holiday party after an altercation before returning with weapons and tactical gear, but it’s also not clear if or how that was connected to the shooting.

This doesn’t mean terrorism can be ruled out. The Paris massacre didn’t fit the mold of previous attacks either. But the events of the past year, not to mention the past week, make abundantly clear that no political or religious motivation has a monopoly on mass violence in America.

Read more of Slate’s coverage of the San Bernardino, California, shooting.