December 30, 2015 By Ali Ahsan

No Smoking Guns in Mediated Realities

San Bernardino bore witness to the latest incident that involved gun violence in the US. I read the first news from The Hindu, ‘A heavily armed man and woman terrorized this city on Wednesday, killing 14 people and wounding at least 17 at a social services center before leading the police on a manhunt culminating in a shootout that left the two suspects dead, the authorities said…’ This report was originally published in The New York Times. The paper, publishing an editorial on its front page for the first time since 1920, said the same description applies for other mass shooters and demanded urgent reform of America’s liberal gun laws.


The front page Editorial.

The suspects, it turns out, are of Muslim identity, Syed Rizwan Farooq and Tashfeen Malik. The news naturally develops into much venting of anger by the public. There are innumerable columns on why ‘Islam is dangerous’ and how Muslims are posing a threat to this world. Mr Donald Trump, a television personality and candidate for President in the coming elections in 2016 went to the extent of calling for a ‘total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.’


Tashfeen Malik and Syed Farooq, the accused.

Less than 24 hours after the incident, The New York Times added a three paragraph note to an anonymously sourced article on Tashfeen Malik, the alleged shooter. The NYT public editor Margaret Sullivan later condemned the paper’s lack of scepticism. Sullivan charges that the story’s incorrect allegation that ‘Malik talked openly on social media’ about radicalism stems from a ‘failure of sufficient scepticism at every level of the reporting and editing process’ and too heavy a reliance on anonymous government sources  – a sign, Sullivan says, that systematic change is necessary. ‘That’s not acceptable for Times readers or for the paper’s credibility, which is its most precious asset. If this isn’t a red alert, I don’t know what will be.’ Sullivan writes. The need for objective news reports from the US is very important especially considering the brouhaha with which much of the news and events are reported.

Farooq, an environmental inspector, had been employed with the country health department for five years. On Wednesday morning, he attended a holiday party for the department at the Inland Regional Centre, a sprawling facility that provides facilities for thousands of people with disabilities. Chief of San Bernardino Police station, Jarrod Burguan, identified the two suspects and said it was not clear whether the third person taken into custody was involved. According to Burguan, some amount of planning went into this but the motive has not yet been determined. ‘We have not ruled out terrorism,’ he said. The attackers, Farook and Malik, were armed with .223-caliber assault rifles and semi-automatic handguns. The attackers also left three explosive devices behind. The officials took hours to render the scene safe. Late in the afternoon, dozens of armed police officers in armed gear went in pursuit of the attackers. Witnesses described a wild scene as dozens of officers closed in on a vehicle, a black SUV, with hundreds of shots fired as the people in the vehicle battled the police. Mr. Burguan said there were at least 20 officers involved in the gun battle. The shooting is relatively surprising since the state of California has relatively strict gun laws, compared with other US states. Anyone wishing to purchase a gun must have a Firearm Safety Certificate, and guns have to comply with state-specific regulations. Two of the four weapons used in the shooting were purchased legally, said Meredith Davis, a spokesman for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF).


Evan Osnos wonders in The New Yorker how these people who strike terror lead a double life as terrorists-to-be. In this case, Syed Rizwan Farooq and Tashfeen Malik agree with the clichéd characteristics of them being the quiet neighbour, the silent co-worker and being the last ones you would expect to turn out an attacker. The author goes on to take into account the study by two researchers on the psychology of how extremists hide their tendencies from relatives and co-workers. Over nearly a decade, Pete Simi, at the University of Nebraska Omaha, and Robert Futrell, of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, interviewed eighty-nine white supremacists—skinheads, Klansmen, neo-Nazis—with the goal of understanding what the researchers call “strategies of calculated concealment and revelation.”

The researchers noticed patterns. In many cases, the zealots do not understand the level of resentment and fear that their views might bring about. Occasionally when they do try to endorse their views like in the case of a believer of Aryan Nationalism, ‘they ranted and raved about him being an evil Nazi and racist.’ So they learn to cope – to hide their views or tattoos, and keep to themselves more often than not. Mack, a member of the Aryan Front, said, “My philosophy on the family front is to just keep the preaching down to a minimum. I hide my white pride stuff; do the typical suck up crap.” An activist whom the researchers call Charlie recalled, “I finally said screw it and ordered a basic swastika flag and they hated it. So I just keep the flags in my room in a box with some other stuff I collect and that way it doesn’t cause any problems.”

‘The lengths that people go to hide hideous thoughts—and the concurrent sense that we do not know those among us are an unnerving phenomenon. It is also ripe for political manipulation. The bigot in search of a rationale can explain his suspicions of Muslim neighbours and co-workers by imagining a hidden world. (The statistics should undermine those particular suspicions: In the years since 9/11, Americans have been attacked more than twice as many times by home grown far-right terrorists as by Islamic terrorists.) We study the mechanics of crime not to fan our paranoia’s, but, rather, to defuse them—to tether our imaginations to facts. To keep ourselves truly safe, we have to acknowledge that some of the worst among us hide in plain sight, but also recognize the difference between the hidden and the unfamiliar. It is comforting to assume the latter is the threat. That would be a mistake,’ writes Osnos.

The importance of understanding the media is paramount in the age of digital media. The world has a global setting and any news material is understood and taken at face value. The swords are drawn out from its sheaf before there is a space for dialogue. ‘Everyone has a right to understand and speak their mind on an issue but it is also important to observe and notice how global media with their respective ideologies and propaganda is shaping people’s thoughts’, says Noam Chomsky. One of the most important books of our times, ‘Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media’ by Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky talks about the mass media in America and their relation to culture, society and existing power structure. Manufacturing consent is related to the understanding that indoctrination is the essence of propaganda. In a “democratic” society indoctrination occurs when the techniques of control of a propaganda model are imposed — which means imposing Necessary Illusions. Here, Chomsky’s Propaganda Model says American media have “filters” — ownership, advertising, news makers, and news shapers — which together emphasize institutional memory, limited debate and media content emphasizing the interests of those in control. Along with ‘Necessary Illusions – Thought Control in Democratic Societies’, a 1989 book by Noam Chomsky himself  concerns – political power using propaganda to distort and distract from major issues to maintain confusion and complicity, preventing real democracy from becoming effective. The title of this book borrows a phrase from the writings of Reinhold Niebuhr.


The cover of the book.

It is almost a month now since the tragic incident occurred; the news pieces and links on the San Bernardino attacks are still doing the rounds on social media. The BBC news (US and Canada news) reports the news as an event that is being investigated as an act of terrorism. The Guardian reports that the ‘lawmaker says San Bernardino shooter’s visa approved despite problems’. The titles of various pieces in the Guardian reads, ‘San Bernardino: Shooters’ neighbour charged with conspiring to commit terrorism’. The events leading up to the attacks have been documented in, ‘San Bernardino shooter and neighbour plotted other attacks in 2011 and 2012’. The criminal complaint details Syed Farooq’s ten year friendship with Enrique Marquez. ‘San Bernardino attackers did not post about jihad on social media, FBI says’. ‘FBI divers finish underwater search for San Bernardino shooters’ hard drive. The agency declines to detail findings in San Bernardino Lake. The ‘chilling video’ of the firing between the Police and the shooters also had gone viral. The cameras could not zoom into the shooters and kept staring at their black SUV and the police moving in towards them. Journalistic ethics matters more than straight facts that people can otherwise see from their own eyes, of course.

Another piece was titled ‘San Bernardino shooting victim called as ‘fearless man of action’ at funeral’. Shannon Johnson had shielded co-workers from shooting at holiday luncheon. There was also a piece about a mysterious fire in a California mosque that stoked fear among the Muslims there. ‘Muslims in US fear increasing prejudice on wave of anti-Islamic sentiment’. There is one ‘Gun sales soar in familiar pattern of panic and profit’ on the increased gun sales in the aftermath of the attacks.

One of the more descriptive stories was carried out by The Telegraph in a piece titled ‘San Bernardino shooting: ISIS claims attack as reports suggest wife came to US to perpetrate terror.’ The father of Syed Farook says his son approved the ideas of ISIS and was fixated with Israel, according to an interview with the Italian daily La Stampa. He said he agreed with (IS Chief Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi’s) ideas for creating the Islamic state, and he was obsessed by Israel. ‘I always used to say to him, be calm, patience, and in two years’ time Israel will no longer exist’. The article has a timeline of events with reports on ‘Obama addressing the nation in the evening’, ‘US Homeland Security calling for a new approach’, ‘Wife came to perpetrate terror’ on Tashfeen Malik, more details on the house raid from Riverside, ‘Malik’s pharmacy professor recalling a ‘submissive student’ and the FBI director coming to a conclusion that there are no indications suspects were part of terror cell.

While on search at Syed Farooq's apartment.

While on search at Syed Farooq’s apartment.

Veteran actor Samuel L Jackson lamented in an interview that the Muslims have become ‘the new young black men’ and admitted that he really wanted the San Bernardino terrorists to be white so as to not bring more scrutiny toward Muslims. “It’s like they have a legitimate reason now to look at your Muslim neighbour, friend, whatever in another way. And they become the new young black men,” he added. Mr. Jackson, who plays a Union Army veteran-turned-bounty hunter in Quentin Tarantino’s new film “The Hateful Eight,” said Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump, his occasional golfing partner, is running on a platform of hate. “There’s absolutely nothing I can do,” he said. “There are some other people that aren’t as open about what he’s saying that are running also, you know, that are just as crazy, that have just as much ill will toward the common man — and not just the common black man. People who don’t have a certain amount of money don’t mean anything to them.”

The actor’s words has come at an important juncture and points to the need of looking at each incident as singular, a black mark against humanity in general. The hate and racist tendencies among the mass and remarks against a community for political gain should be condemned in all forms.


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