With the attack on a county program center in San Bernadino this week, we have been shown the combination of a "sleeper" terrorist and a "soft" target. It is devastating. With 14 dead and more wounded, the professionals are now working on identifying the circle around the dead terrorists. But there are many lessons to be learned.
First, there were immediate attempts to react to the attack and label it. Was it a disgruntled employee? Was it domestic terrorism? Was it international terrorism? It had elements of each.
The first question was, is this a disgruntled employee, and therefore "just" a violent mass murder? Syed Rizwan Farook, 28, and Tashfeen Malik, 27, fired as many as 150 bullets inside the San Bernadino County Inland Regional Center where he had worked. In retrospect, his employee status was merely part of the long play to identify a target and its weakest moment - the holiday party. He was not disgruntled, in conflict, or identified as a threat in any way.
The second thought was, is this an "anti government" domestic terror attack, like Oklahoma City? After all, it was a county building. But this also didn't make sense, as it was not a "government" office, and its purpose was to provide services to the special needs community. Hardly a focal point for anti-government sentiment.
Finally, the truth starts to emerge. They had thousands of rounds stockpiled at home. They had built pipe bombs and purchased military equipment and clothing. They had been deleting their computers and destroying their phones in the last few days before the attack. They purposefully dropped off their six month old baby (!) with her grandmother. They attended the holiday party to case the location one last time, and then returned armed for war and began shooting.
At some point in the last few years, Syed made a change in his understanding of Islam and of America. Born and raised in Chicago as a first generation American, he had no criminal record. He had the right to travel to the Middle East, which he did. He had the right to apply for immigration for his fiancee and co-terrorist. And he did. He had the right to pass a criminal background check and screening in California to purchase guns, which he did. He had all of the rights and privileges that you and I have. They were employed, and welcomed in their neighborhood. America had done nothing wrong, and until they pulled the trigger neither had they.
This is the most difficult form of terrorism to prevent. At best, you hope to stumble across them as they slowly stockpile materials to be used in bombs. If you are lucky, someone will become aware and turn them in, but they were perfect in how they laid low. But this is a country of freedoms, and Syed was a born citizen like you or me. What level of government intrusion into personal freedoms would have revealed this plot in advance? Certainly not one that you or I would tolerate.
The only way to stop them would have been to have had secured doors at the facility, and trained armed people in the building to respond during the shooting. The truth is that only armed guards, or trained and armed citizens, can stop a shooter like this. They are not on watch lists, no-fly lists, nor are they persons of interest in any crime. They were known in the building and had the right to enter. People like this can always start the shooting. The question is, how fast can we stop it once it starts?
Once again, the response to the shooting by some has been to try to ban guns on the one side, or to scapegoat Islam on the other.
Terrorists and criminals will always have access to guns, and will always be able to make bombs. The more pragmatic answer to these scenarios, though many are afraid of its stark reality, is to allow regular folks to become trained and licensed in the handling of firearms for defense. In Paris, in San Bernadino, in Charleston... no one in the room had a chance. The training should be a high bar and the vetting for a public concealed carry should be a high standard, but the only other solution is to hide and hope that the shooter misses you for the next 10-15 minutes while the police scramble to get to you.
And yes, there is a strong and determined voice in Islam to murder the enemies of their brand of Islam. The enemies of ISIS include other muslims, westerners, Jews and whoever gets in their way. Those of us on the outside of Islam looking in continue to assert that Islam itself has to reject the terror and the truth is most of Islam does, unless you start talking about Israel.
The FBI and Homeland Security are on the case. The back story will be known, and new leads in the war on terror will be found and followed. The Islamic community in this country will continue to be supportive and cooperative to pursue and prevent this kind of murder, as they have proven to be since 9/11.
In the meantime, patience. No new stereotypes. No new legislation. Let the professionals do their job, and know that on a day to day basis in this country you really are entirely safe (unless you drive on I-95 in rush hour!).