Patrick Sherrill was unaware, as he killed 14 of his co-workers, that he was entering the lexicon. On August 20th, 1980, he walked into the Edmond, Oklahoma, branch of the United States Postal Service where he had been employed as a reserve driver for little over a year. He began by shooting his supervisor, Richard Esser Jr, who had reprimanded him the day before. He then looked for Bill Bland, the other supervisor who had taken him aside, but Bland had overslept and hadn't made it to work yet. Undeterred, Sherrill found other victims. Within fifteen minutes he had finished his murderous spree and put a bullet through his own forehead. He had, as common parlance would record, 'gone postal'.
Sherrill was not the first disgruntled employee to shoot up a post-office. That honour goes to Floyd Davidson who, in 1975, killed the Postmaster and postal tour superintendent in Gadsden, Alabama. It was Sherrill's attack however that was the tipping point; launching an eleven-year spate of killings that saw more than 40 people killed in over 20 separate incidents in US post offices.
It appeared, at first glance, that the recent San Bernardino shooting was of this mould. While the Inland Regional Centre is not affiliated with the Post Office, it is a government funded NGO, thus operating in the public sphere. Syed Rizwan Farook, who perpetrated the shooting with his wife Tashfeen Malik, was an environmental health specialist who had worked for the San Bernardino Department of Public Health for five years prior to the shooting. He sat patiently during an event in the banquet room, quickly leaving before a group photo. He returned with his wife, his face hidden behind a balaclava and brandishing an AR15 assault rifle. The pair fatally shot 14 people, seriously injuring another 22.
"Just another day in the United States of America" was how BBC News correspondent James Cook introduced the footage of bodies being wheeled out from the Inland Regional Centre. It was this tone of intense resignation that initially met the shooting-the second worst that California has ever seen, and the most deadly in the US since Sandy Hook in 2012. It seemed to be yet another mass shooting with yet another weak justification; mental illness or a workplace grievance-discrete gasoline set aflame by the flint-click of too easily available guns.
Geraldo Riviera of Fox News tweeted as the news broke that "the key now is for us to be as outraged by San Bernardino massacre as we would be if Muslim extremists were doing the killing. This is terror." This somewhat unfortunate tweet was quickly rendered obsolete as ties emerged between the attackers and ISIS. Moments before the shooting Tashfeen Malik posted ""We pledge allegiance to Khalifa bu bkr al bhaghdadi al quraishi" onto her Facebook page, which analysts at the FBI have argued is a reference to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi; the self-proclaimed Caliph of the Islamic State. What had initially appeared to be a tragically run of the mill mass shooting now appeared to be a calculated terrorist attack with links to ISIS. This matters because what was briefly regarded as an outbreak of this uniquely American disease has been portrayed instead as the first shudders of an international plague.
It is still unclear the extent to which San Bernardino really is a terrorist attack in the traditional sense. Terrorism is commonly held to be politically motivated violence. Despite assertions that both Farook and Malik had radicalised separately before marrying and a few messages on social media indicating a desire to commit Jihad, the evidence is somewhat thin as to the true motives of the attacks, or the politics of the attackers.
There is, for instance, scant relevance of the Inland Regional Centre, a niche organisation in a town of little significance, to the wider political aims Farook and Malik may have been trying to expound. Moreover any concrete links to ISIS, aside from self-published associations made by the shooters on social media, are yet to be made. It appears that the shooters received no funding from an external organisation nor is there evidence that Farook or Malik gained any particular training overseas in preparation for the attack. Obama was cagey in his address to the nation saying, "It is possible that this was terrorist related, but we don't know. It's also possible that this was workplace related."
If the Inland Regional Centre seems odd for a terrorist attack, contrast it to the Colorado Spring's shooting at Planned Parenthood just days before. Robert Lewis Dear, the shooter who killed a police officer and two civilians, called himself "a warrior for the babies" in court. It was inevitable that, in the ever-churning washing machine of the news cycle, San Bernardino, with its higher death count and links to ISIS, would wash the Planned Parenthood shooting off screens. However the Planned Parenthood shooting is a much more clear-cut example of domestic terrorism than San Bernardino; the location was clearly symbolic and calculated to send a political message-in this instance unironically advocating pro-life policies by way of mass murder.
Mass shootings can be a tactic employed by terrorists, but not all mass shootings are terrorism. In the case of the recent Paris attacks or the Mumbai attacks in 2009 mass shootings were carried out by extremely well trained and organised groups of terrorists, who fanned out through their respective cities to maximise the bloodshed and spread thin the capability of emergency responders and police. The US has never seen such an attack, despite guns being far more prevalent. The closest the US came to seeing such an attack before San Bernardino was the Fort Hood shooting in 2009, though once again this was committed at the shooter's work place, blurring the lines between workplace violence and clear-cut terrorism.
However this hasn't prevented politicians from hijacking the narrative around San Bernardino to advocate for policies that are xenophobic and anti-Muslim. At the most extreme end of the spectrum Donald Trump, who comfortably leads polls for the Republican nomination, called for a "total and complete shutdown" of the country's borders to Muslims in the wake of the shooting, until an unspecified date in the future when "we are able to determine and understand this problem." The proposed ban would include Muslim Americans who happened to be out of the country at the time it was imposed. Despite the comment garnering bi-partisan condemnation and outrage from the media, the fallout from the shooting has seen a shattering increase of hate-crimes against Muslims. There have been up to three-dozen or more serious threats or actual attacks, including a pig's head being thrown at a mosque in Philadelphia and a mosque being set on fire in Coachella, California .
The association of San Bernardino with Islamic extremism has masked the bigger issue at hand. Mass shootings are terrorising the American populace, but they are not terrorism in a definitional sense. Adam Lanza, while deranged, had no political project. Eric Harris, the psychopath behind the Columbine shooting, had no grand vision beyond his own grandeur. Elliot Rodger, who shot three girls standing outside of a sorority house at UCSB in Isla Vista, had no ideology other than gaining retribution against women for rejecting his sexual advances.
Terrorism has a logic-a narrative arc that while unpalatable can be digested and shown to lack sustenance. It can be fought, not just physically, but on a normative level. There is no such recourse for the post-modern horror of mass shootings. Since 9/11 America has seen 42 people killed domestically in Jihadist terror attacks . So far in 2015 alone 457 people have died in mass shootings . America's gravest danger is not terrorism. The two largest domestic terrorist attacks since 9/11 have both been shootings that took place where the shooter was employed. Of the 42 killed in Jihadist terrorist attacks on US soil since 9/11 39 have been shot. To point the finger at ISIS and Islamic Fundamentalism is a diversionary tactic; much like banning people from wearing Batman costumes to the cinema after the Aurora shooting. Whether terrorism, the banality of people 'going postal' or those enacting their psychotic fantasies on innocents in the lunchroom, the scarlet thread that binds them is access to guns.