San Bernardino: Who’s to Blame for the United States of Hate?

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The day after the shootings in San Bernardino, House Speaker Paul Ryan rejected calls for tighter gun control. Mark Wilson/Getty

Even before police could put up crime-scene tape on Wednesday at the mass shooting site in San Bernardino, California, social media was clogged with one major question: Which political party could be blamed?

If this was labeled as Islamic terrorism, conservatives were ready to pounce on the Obama administration and Democrats with the message that the deaths were the result of weakness in combating jihadi enemies. If this was deemed workplace violence, liberals were ready to go with their case that this was all about Republicans blocking gun control.

It’s pathetic. America has become so divided into ignorant tribes, each so focused on “winning” for their political teams, so convinced of their ideological opponents’ malevolent intent, that every horror or downturn or struggle is seen solely through the lens of which party triumphs in the messaging competition. All nuance is removed from any debate. Who’s to blame has become the overriding issue, even before the murdered have been identified or the evidence presented. A genie of hatred has been let out of the bottle, with each half of the country seeing the other not as people of different political philosophies but as wicked, psychopathic fascists bent on destroying America.

Related: San Bernardino Shooter Made Social Media Contact With Extremists

As horrifying as the San Bernardino shooting was, and as heartbreaking as it is to know that 14 people perished, the event has exposed another terrible reality: the sickness that permeates our national id, a level of inhumanity and callousness that shows America is broken, perhaps irreparably. We can accomplish nothing, not because we disagree on solutions, but because we divide ourselves into warring camps as irrational in our loathing for each other as the Shiite and Sunni fighters in the Middle East.

To understand why, let’s first explore this shooting. The facts are unprecedented in modern times—and perhaps ever. Terrorists almost exclusively target strangers for mass murders, primarily because it is the randomness of an attack that is the mechanism for instilling fear. Not here; the male suspect, Syed Rizwan Farook, worked in the building and killed his fellow employees like a typical workplace shooter. (The most similar examples to Farook in this case are Yassin Salhi, who beheaded his boss this past summer after he had been fired by a French delivery company, and Alton Nolen, who did the same last year to a co-worker after being dismissed by an Oklahoma food-processing plant where he worked; both were violent Islamic extremists who had no ties to an organized group, but both were also disgruntled former employees.)  

There are other bizarre aspects. An attack by married shooters—whether jihadis, racists or any other category—is virtually unprecedented, particularly given that they had a baby. (The closest comparison is the 2005 bombing in Amman, Jordan; Ali al-Shamari and Sajida al-Rishawi were a husband-and-wife suicide team, but her bomb did not explode. In the Charlie Hebdo attack earlier this year, Amedy Coulibaly and his wife, Hayat Boumeddiene, were both part of the Islamic State militant group, known as ISIS, but she did not participate in the shooting.)

Terrorism is intended, by definition, to convey a political message. The San Bernardino killers, while clearly influenced by Islamic extremism, made no attempt to do so. There were no calls invoking Allah as the killings began; in fact, survivors said the shooters said nothing. Masks hid their faces, they made no attempt to blow themselves up as terrorists often do, and there are no reports that they left notes or any other evidence to convey political goals or motives.

So this is an unprecedented mass workplace shooting by an employee and his wife who appear to have been radical Muslims. So what is the political message?

The better question: Who cares?

“Putting aside the possibility of actual transnational terrorism, it doesn’t matter if someone snaps because of ISIS ideology or racist ideology," says Patrick Skinner, a former case officer with the Counterterrorist Center at the CIA who is now director of special projects with the Soufan Group, a strategic security intelligence firm. “If it is the difference between someone getting radicalized by something online about ISIS or neo-Nazis or they just hate life, the threat is all the same.”

Related: Presidential Candidates React to San Bernardino Shooting

In other words, bullets have no motives. They kill innocent people whether fired by a jihadi or a skinhead or an abortion protester or a mentally ill person or a disgruntled employee or an enraged racist or a suicidal schoolboy or any of the untold numbers of disaffected, homicidal human time bombs in our midst. All of them place us in danger; America should be united in trying to find a solution to decrease that danger, not split into cliques of rage-filled screamers looking for a scoring point. A lone-wolf shooter—or a couple of wolves—are extremely difficult if not impossible to detect before they start killing, intelligence analysts tell Newsweek. But that won’t stop after-the-fact blaming.

In the most extreme example, activists on both sides now rush to find out (or simply make up) whether a mass shooter is registered as a Republican or a Democrat, in order to invoke political affiliation as the driving force behind murder. “Liberals don’t respect life," a conservative blogger said to explain his article that claimed all mass murderers are from the political left. “The only politically motivated domestic terrorists in this country are coming from the right," a liberal blogger retorted.

Politicians and political commentators have fed into and off of this relentless hate that is destroying America. When prominent individuals say, with no justification, that those across the political divide are murderers, rapists, tyrants, racists and all manner of other evildoers, it is no surprise that a frightened populace will tear itself apart and, in some cases, be moved to violence. Nothing is open for discussion—climate change, for example, is not a scientific debate; climatologists are deemed part of a vast conspiracy designed by liberals to bring down America, while those who deny the science are nothing more than tools of the fossil fuels industry. Each side is certain of the other side’s motives; few listen to the facts underlying the issue.

In the titles of books, pundits call their ideological opponents “traitors,” “criminal gangs,” “the Great Destroyer,” and on and on. When Carly Fiorina, a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, lies that she saw a video of abortion providers keeping a baby alive so they could harvest its brain, conservatives used to hearing the “Democrats are baby-killers” meme nod without seeing the irrationality of the allegation. (Harvesting a brain for what? Why would it need to be alive? And why didn’t Fiorina immediately call law enforcement to report the murder on a video that no one else seems to have seen? And how many of those too lacking in common sense or sanity will feel compelled to rescue these imaginary babies with violence?) President Barack Obama attacks conservatives as being “afraid of widows and orphans” on the issue of Syrian refugees. Hillary Clinton proclaims she is proud of having Republicans as her enemies. Senator Ted Cruz, another GOP presidential candidate, says most crimes are committed by Democrats and that the recent shooter at Planned Parenthood in Colorado was a “transgendered leftist activist,” even though there was no rational evidence to support any of those claims.

One prominent politician has addressed the issue of how invective and politicization from both sides is tearing apart the country. On Face the Nation, a few days after the Planned Parenthood shooting, Ben Carson, another candidate for the Republican nomination, called for greater reason and respect in political debate about topics like abortion. “No question the hateful rhetoric exacerbates the situation, and we should be doing all we can to engage an intelligent, civil discussion about our differences," Carson said. "I think both sides should tone down their rhetoric and engage in civil discussion.”

How could anyone object to that? Because Carson, in our modern madness, was deemed by his erstwhile supporters to be calling for respectful dialogue with the evil opposition. “Dr. Carson just ended his presidential candidacy,” Troy Newman, who leads the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue, proclaimed in response to the candidate’s call for calm.

Is any of this fixable? Sadly, probably not. In the last decade, America has descended into a society flooded with facts—from the Internet or cable television or talk radio—but with far too little knowledge. Complexity—and reality is almost always complex—doesn’t win clicks online or television viewers or political advantage. Bomb-throwing and fire-breathing are what bring in the audiences and the donors.

“There are real threats, but no one is interested in how to solve that. They are looking to profit off of it, or fundraise from it, or get more retweets,” says Skinner, the former CIA case officer. “It’s like talking to a crazy person. And we have become a nation of crazy people.”