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On December 2, Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik burst into a meeting at San Bernadino, California's Inland Regional Center and opened fire, killing 14 and wounding any more. The two were later killed in a shootout with the police.
In the wake of this horrific attack, media reports are emerging that the couple's neighbors observed "suspicious activities" at their Redland, California townhouse and Farook's mother's home, but didn't report those activities for fear that they would be accused of racial profiling.
What were these "suspicious activities?" One was an apparent domestic dispute. The others were general in nature: They were observed "doing a lot of work out in the garage" and received "quite a few packages in a short amount of time."
I've lived in America for 49 years. During that time, I've observed numerous domestic disputes (and had a few myself). I've done plenty of tinkering around in my garage (when I've had a garage to tinker around in). And the local mail carrier and UPS and FedEx drivers know my home well -- my family members and I do a LOT of online shopping.
Unless the media reports are omitting significant details, the only "suspicious" aspect of the activities in question were that Farook and Malik "looked middle eastern." Reporting them on the basis of those activities would indeed have been an instance of racial profiling.
The neighbors are beating up on themselves. That's understandable. But they shouldn't be doing that. That their suspicions turned out to have been well-founded does not retrospectively make those suspicions rational. Normal activities aren't -- or at least SHOULDN'T be -- "suspicious" just because the people engaging in them don't look like one of Norman Rockwell's Saturday Evening Post covers circa 1940.
This is how the terrorists win, folks. The goal of terrorism is to terrorize us. What could possibly be a more effective means of that than getting us to live in fear not of some far-away foreign threat, but of our own neighbors?
It's a numbers game, with hooks reaching down into one of the darkest and ugliest aspects of our history: Our racial and ethnic stereotypes and prejudices. For every active terror cell in the United States, there are almost certainly millions, maybe even tens of millions, of innocent Americans, native and immigrant alike, who look just like that cell's members. "Suspicion" based on such appearances is a force multiplier for the bad guys.
It may well not be that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. But when it comes to terrorism, unfounded and unbounded fear is our main weakness. If we can beat that weakness, we will inevitably beat the terrorists along with it.