Skip to main content

What kind of mother would say goodbye to her six-month-old daughter, then drive with her husband to his workplace one morning to calmly, deliberately slaughter as many of his co-workers as possible?

Tashfeen Malik was that kind of mother. It was she who evidently radicalized her husband. It was she who was first to open fire. It was she who declared her loyalty to Islamic State in a Facebook post, and fired back at the police before the couple were mowed down in a hail of bullets.

The slaughter in San Bernardino introduced a new face – and phase – of terrorism. It was the first IS-inspired attack on American soil, committed not on military targets but, as in Paris, on ordinary civilians. Yet the immediate knee-jerk responses were entirely predictable. Guns are the problem! No, refugees are the problem! Just get rid of guns (or refugees) and we won't have to worry.

Tighter gun control and better border screening would both, no doubt, be good things. But neither of them would solve the terrorism problem. And both liberals and conservatives are evading the central issue: What kind of new mother would do this?

Up here in Canada, we like to think that America's gun culture is the source of all its social ills. So here are just a few quick facts. The San Bernardino couple's arsenal of guns and ammo was, as a writer for The Nation put it, "as American as apple pie." They purchased their guns legally and passed all the background checks. Such arsenals are common, and most are owned by Republicans. People are not going to give them up. Serious gun reform is impossible in the U.S. without repealing the Second Amendment, and that's not going to happen. Nor would gun reform be likely to deter terrorists. France's strict gun laws didn't stop the carnage in Paris.

Conservatives don't want to ban guns. They want to ban refugees, along with immigrants from suspicious countries like Iraq and Saudi Arabia. That won't stop terrorist attacks either. Most terrorists in Europe and North America – including Ms. Malik's husband, Syed Farook – are of the home-grown variety. They're the offspring of people (often secular, educated, and horrified by their children's deeds) who came here years ago. Ms. Malik, who was an immigrant from Pakistan, passed all the usual background checks.

There are more than seven million Pakistani emigrants around the world. Most are good guys. Pakistan's radical Muslim groups were a problem long before Islamic State came along, but the West is powerless to rein them in. The West has pressured Pakistan for years to move against them, but it hasn't worked.

Barack Obama doesn't have the answers either. On Sunday night he addressed the country in an effort to look as if he's on top of things. I'm not sure he convinced people. Iraq and Syria are in ruins, and Libya is an outlaw non-state. Afghanistan has reverted to its former chaos. A monumental U.S. effort to train and arm some good guys to fight in Syria produced exactly nothing. Butcher Bashar al-Assad is still in power, IS is still on the rampage, and the refugees are still fleeing. No wonder he sounded a bit defensive.

Unfortunately, attacks like the one in San Bernardino cannot be prevented by stricter gun control, or better refugee screening, or even stepped-up integration efforts. Islamism expert Arif Jamal, who's based in Washington, D.C., explains why. The rise of modern global jihadism is rooted in extremist interpretations of Islam. Islamic organizations conveniently blame Western foreign policies for the rise of jihadism. "The most important reason behind the Muslims' fascination with jihadism in the U.S. and elsewhere is their victimhood syndrome," he said in an interview with Deutsche Welle. "Jihadism teaches them that the failures of Muslims as individuals and as an ummah (community) are caused by the infidels who must be fought against, as Islamic scriptures order them."

And that's the answer, more or less, to what kind of mother would do this. A mother who didn't care that their baby would be an orphan, or that the people she set out to kill had chipped in for baby presents. A mother who wanted revenge on the West, and whose only regret, I suspect, was that she hadn't killed even more.

Interact with The Globe