At War With an Idea

What if the freedom to bear arms is also the freedom to be a jihadi?

San Bernardino terrorism.
SWAT officers enter an area where suspects were believed to be after the shooting at the Inland Regional Center on Dec. 2, 2015, in San Bernardino, California.

Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

At this moment, investigators in several countries are searching for people who might have been involved in Wednesday’s massacre in San Bernardino, California. They’re looking for evidence that somebody somewhere directed or guided the killers, Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik. Maybe they’ll find a connection. But the more disturbing possibility is that they won’t. Instead, it will turn out that Farook and Malik never received a suspicious package or a target assignment from abroad. What they received was an idea: Kill Americans.

This is where terrorism is going. In an age of instantaneous, decentralized global communication, it’s often difficult to ship supplies or people. But it’s easy to transmit ideas. Governments can inspect cargo, prohibit migrants, and build Trump-like walls along their borders, but they can’t stop the flow of ideas. In the West, politicians often say this as a boast, as though the only irrepressible ideas are good ones. But killing infidels is just another message you can spread with a phone and an app. We can monitor networks of terrorists or extremists. But when the network never contacts the killer—when the only connection between them is a susceptible mind hearing a worldwide plea—how can we find and stop those who are about to strike?

San Bernardino illustrates the problem. To get a visa to the United States, Malik—who reportedly pledged her allegiance to ISIS in a Facebook post during Wednesday’s attack—had to go through an in-person interview, biometrics, and checks against terrorist watch lists. The review included her workplaces, travel history, and family. The process is supposed to be especially rigorous for people from extremist-infested countries such as Pakistan, where she was born. Then, to get a green card, she had to go through additional national security background checks using data from the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security. She passed both screenings, most recently in July. Now Pakistanis are trying to blame Saudi Arabia for radicalizing her while the Saudis claim to have no information linking her to militants.

Farook was born in Chicago and grew up in California. Since the attack, investigators have discovered that he had contacts with people “associated” with the Nusra Front (a Syrian al-Qaida affiliate) and Somalia’s al-Shabab. But investigators anonymously concede that all of these contacts are years old, “not substantial” (for example, liking a Facebook page), and not with anyone of “significant investigative concern.” As of Friday night, no one has found a connection to ISIS. The bottom line, according to FBI Director James Comey, is that “we have no indication that these killers … are part of a network.”

You can monitor mosques, and we do. According to the Wall Street Journal, Farook’s mosque “had established regular contact with law enforcement.” But nobody picked up any warning signs from him. The mosque’s director says Farook never conveyed anger about his job or about politics. Malik didn’t even attend mosque regularly. She was so quiet that even her in-laws say they didn’t really know her.

You can tell people, “If you see something, say something.” But at Farook’s office, aside from the beard he grew after returning from a short trip to Saudi Arabia, there wasn’t much to see. His colleagues thought he got along well with them. Just two weeks before the attack—presumably, long after he had begun to stockpile ammunition and pipe bombs—he reportedly tried to explain, during an office conversation, that Islam was a peaceful religion.

From Farook’s posts online, you’d never have guessed he was radical. He talked about Michael Jordan, vintage cars, and enjoying restaurants and hikes. In dating profiles, he called himself “very liberal” (though also “religious but modern”) and said he was open to a relationship with a non-Muslim. Farook’s brother, whose name is almost identical, served four years in the Navy.

At most, you might have learned that Farook was into guns. According to one of his online profiles, he liked to “just hang out in [the] backyard doing target practice.” And if you’d had access to his purchase records, you might have figured out that some of the stuff he was buying could be used to make pipe bombs. But what you really would have noticed were the firearms and ammo. Farook and Malik launched their attack with two .223-caliber semiautomatic weapons and two 9 mm semiautomatic pistols. Afterward, police found that the couple had 2,500 rounds for the long guns and 2,000 rounds for the handguns, plus another 1,600 rounds in their car.

And that raises a question. If you can’t stop ideas from crossing borders—if you can’t surveil every node of every network, peer into every soul, and know in advance who’s becoming radicalized—then you have to look for some other, more material transaction to monitor or control. The most obvious such transaction is the acquisition of weaponry. In the ideal world of the National Rifle Association—a world in which guns are freely available and our sole method of regulating their use is through mental health treatment, or sometimes through criminal background checks—anyone with a clean record can buy all the guns and ammo he wants, without raising any alarms. Including Syed Farook.

I’m a skeptic of gun laws. The weapons used in San Bernardino were apparently purchased legally, under California’s relatively strict laws, and then modified illegally. Rounding up most of the guns in this country would be logistically impossible, and enacting mandatory registration would be an enormous political challenge.

But if you’re not willing to pursue some kind of gun registration or gun control, then you’re left with the psychology of the shooter. And what San Bernardino just demonstrated, in the grisliest way, is that we’re even less capable of tracking psychology than we are of tracking guns. So if you want to blame radical Islam, go right ahead. And tell us how you’d monitor the flow of radical Islam from Syria to California. And if you can’t answer that question, then ask yourself whether you love liberty so much that you’re willing to defend the right of everyone, including aspiring jihadists, to stockpile and bear unregistered arms.

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