The following editorial appeared in the Chicago Tribune on Friday, Dec. 4:
Before Syed Rizwan Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, slaughtered innocents in San Bernardino, Calif., they performed a prudent and commonplace mission of mercy: They dropped off their 6-month-old daughter with Grandma for safekeeping. The couple reportedly said they were heading to an appointment with a doctor. Surely they didn’t say they’d be meeting a pathologist at an autopsy table.
That delivery of a youngster to a trusted relative was a shrewd if probably unwitting act of propaganda: Farook and Malik subtly launched their terror mission without firing a shot. We know them now as the terror cell next door, ordinary neighbors with a registry for baby gifts.
If we believe Thursday’s reports that Farook had transformed into a radical — not a madman, an ill person, a racial supremacist or any other familiar category of mass murderer — then he and Malik will force us to think with new imagination about terror operations on U.S. soil. Farook and Malik evidently didn’t qualify for anyone’s watch list. What’s most striking isn’t who they were, but who they weren’t:
Fourteen years ago, Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida masterminds of the 9/11 attacks couldn’t rely on American-grown talent; they had to infiltrate their operatives into this country. By disturbing contrast, Islamic State extremists in Syria and Iraq last month demonstrated their ability to influence far-off Europeans who waged the bloodbath in Paris.
And San Bernardino? We can’t speculate on what the FBI analysis of Farook and Malik’s telephone traffic, email threads and Internet travels ultimately will reveal; these forensic investigations can yield unanticipated associates, networks or hierarchies. At the get-go, though, this case focuses on two people whose lives appeared to have much in common with how the rest of us live.
The spontaneous radical — if that’s the pathology here — just isn’t a familiar figure in U.S. terror lore. The Tsarnaev brothers of Boston Marathon infamy come inexactly to mind, as do a few less accomplished killers. U.S. intelligence and law enforcement services, though, are more attuned to the potential sleeper cell, dispatched to cause havoc at some future time, or the lone wolf whose telephone metadata, online communiques or loose lips leave clues. Six weeks ago, FBI Director James Comey told an audience of intel officials that the feds have about 900 active investigations of potentially violent actors nationwide. The vast majority involve possible efforts by Islamic State to recruit or influence followers.
Set aside all early speculation on Farook and Malik’s motives. At this writing, anyone who really comprehends isn’t talking. For all the rest of us know, they could be the last, lethal incarnation of the Symbionese Liberation Army — or two kooks who want the letter “Z” stricken from the alphabet.
What we know for certain is that they succeeded at any terrorists’ central goal — less to defeat a population than to frighten it. We also suspect that their actions — and their outwardly ordinary lives — will make suspicion of patriotic and lawful Muslim Americans more acute. The enormity of this pair’s arsenal, including their in-home bomb factory, will cause some Americans to look askance at others.
That’s an injustice that all of us, Muslim or not, should lay at the feet of Islamist extremists. Their acts of terror have invited frightened Americans to level accusations of guilt by association. To create divisions.
That said, Farook and Malik should force all of us — again, Muslim or not — to join in imagining new ways to identify, report and interdict potential terrorists, be they religious extremists or other breeds of would-be mass murderers. That’s more difficult if the bad actors, rather than plotting sneaky entries into the U.S., instead are otherwise unremarkable people making sure they’ve brought enough diapers.
This is a fraught moment for America. We want home-grown terrorism exterminated, whether its perpetrators are radicalized ideologues, rogue independents or gangbangers on the streets. The oddity of a terror cell with a baby is but one more phenomenon we have to address with the same fearless resolve.
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