On Wednesday morning at 11 a.m., Syed Rizwan Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik left a Christmas party for the San Bernardino Health Department, where Farook worked, in San Bernardino, California. Three hours later, at 2 p.m., they returned, dressed in black military grade gear, armed with automatic rifles, and fired 76 rounds on the 80 people gathered at the party, killing 14 of them and wounding 21 others. A U.S. citizen, Farook had worked there as an environmental health specialist for five years.
The names of the deceased have now been released and made available to the public. These 14 names have now been added to an unexpected and hallowed roll call of lives taken by gun violence:
• Robert Adams, 40
• Isaac Amanios, 60
• Bennetta Bet-Badal, 46
• Harry Bowman, 46
• Sierra Clayborn, 27
• Juan Espinoza, 50
• Aurora Godoy, 26
• Shannon Johnson, 45
• Larry Kaufman, 42
• Damian Meins, 58
• Tin Nguyen, 31
• Nicholas Thalasinos, 52
• Michael Wetzel, 37
• Yvette Velasco, 27
As we set our hearts once again to mourn the horrific and terrible loss of innocent life at the hands of the newest band of crazed killers, who in this case appear to have embraced a radicalized version of Islam, I cannot help but question how routine and almost mundane this particular ritual of mourning has all become. We have seen a list of names like this printed in our newspapers and flooding our social media feeds more times than we care to admit. In fact, here in America, there have now been more mass shootings than there have been days in the year thus far. In the wake of such profound tragedy, there is certainly no absence of finger pointing and blame shifting. Notwithstanding the wide spectrum of viewpoints on gun control, one thing that everyone can seem to agree on is that when it comes to gun violence something has gone terribly, awfully, and tragically wrong.
This latest rash of politically and religiously motivated terrorism we are witnessing throughout the country is disturbing on more levels than I even know how to express. Like many people, I move from anger to disbelief, from shock to horror, and from despair to utter exhaustion with it all. In some ways I have never felt so small, so powerless, and so utterly insignificant in the face of such great darkness, such massive evil. Living here in Southern California, I cannot help but feel a unique connection to the pain of my neighbors in San Bernardino. And from that connection stems a feeble but sure sense of responsibility to do something about it.
Yet there is something almost spurious and incomplete about the narrative that I see posted, tweeted and recirculated in the wake of each of these incidents. That narrative revolves around the language and ethics of personal responsibility. We cannot seem to help but hold an individual responsible. They were a "lone wolf" we like to say. Or they were a "deranged individual." Or, if we can bring ourselves to extend the narrative much beyond just a single individual, we will associate them with this community or with those people, almost reflexively repelling even the faintest hint of responsibility from ourselves. Even when extended to groups, such as Christian extremists, Islamic extremists, black people in the inner city, white males, or whatever the group may be, as long as they are some kind of deviant, or some kind of "other" that is not "us," it seems to make the almost routine nature of these heinous acts palatable for the rest of us.
Now, before I go any further, let me be very clear. Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik are the ones who are responsible for this week's act of terror in San Bernardino. I firmly believe that we are each responsible for our own actions and should be held accountable for them. Our lives would be rife with even more chaos and anarchy if we were not each held individually and personal liable for breaking the law, especially when it comes to doing the unthinkable and taking another human being's life.
Yet there is something about our responses to these horrific tragedies that is really bothering me. I cannot seem to quite put my finger on it but it involves the ways in which we seem to ironically use a narrative of personal responsibility to actually absolve ourselves of any personal responsibility.
Again and again, in various ways the narrative of personal responsibility is one of the central moral lenses that we use to evaluate traumatic events that really impact us all as a community. And what I'm saying is that while we are certainly all personally responsible, I'm finding this narrative to be simply worn and increasingly inadequate for the nature of the problems that we now face.
Sure. There's no question that we could all just go down to our local gun shop and get strapped. In fact, all of us getting a gun to protect ourselves is probably the most natural response. And who knows? Maybe it is just that simple. But what if there's something deeper going on here?
One of the things that is striking to me in this latest incident here in California is that the San Bernardino community has actually been struggling with gun violence in their community for decades, but little attention has been brought to this community's problem because it is a predominantly brown community. The message could not be more clear. It's tragic that those people have to deal with those problems, but again, it's "those people" who have to deal with those problems. I have to deal with my problems, so you need to deal with yours. Again, the message of personal responsibility.
As once sporadic episodes of mass terror have quickly become a new norm, is it enough to continue to turn to the comforting narrative of personal responsibility? Is it enough to say that "those people need to get their act together"? I don't think so. The reality is that the problem of gun violence, and even of the kind of domestic and global terrorism we are now witnessing is not someone else's problem. It's our problem. It's not just an individual's problem. It's a social problem. What if our new normal of mass terror is not just a problem of a "lone wolf"? What if it's a problem with the whole pack of wolves?
I actually believe that one of the single largest contributors to the specific kind of mass violence that we are seeing in our world today is that more people than we would like to think are actually crushing under the cruel and oppressive weight of personal responsibility. The upside of the personal responsibility, rugged individualistic, "pull yourself up from your bootstraps " narrative is that if you have enough grit and work hard enough then the sky's the limit. However, the downside of the message of personal responsibility is a nefarious little lie that if you find yourself on the losing side, or if you fall off of the horse and you cannot seem to dust yourself off and get back on again, then you're on your own. You're on your own.
Isolation, hopelessness, and loss. Isolation, hopelessness, and loss are the downside of personal responsibility. And there are few things that contribute to someone being vulnerable to hate-filled rhetoric or radical extremism than the feeling of being hopeless and alone. Couple loneliness with loss and loss with hopelessness and you have the perfect recipe for mass terror.
We saw it on a social scale in the rise of anti-semitism and Nazism in Germany after World War I, when they felt utterly isolated and defeated in the world. We saw it in Rwanda when for years a Hutu majority had been told their loss and oppression was their own fault. We see it in our inner cities, as young men who are faced with declining job prospects turn again and again to drugs and gang violence. We see it in America with a rash of white American male domestic terrorists from Timothy McVeigh to Dylan Roof who vow to take "their country back," all seeming to attribute their extremism to a sense of isolation, hopelessness, and loss.
Yes, these people were sick, demented, and callous killers. There is no excuse for their psychotic embrace of hatred and terror. Yet, we can no longer so quickly evade or ignore the social dimensions of these acts, and miss the possibility of a shared sickness, a shared dementia, or a social phenomenon.
The truth is that for all of our new "followers" on Twitter, and for all of our "likes" on Facebook, we are living lives that are increasingly more isolated than ever before. And in the midst of a world where the divide between those who "have" and those who "have not" seems to increase faster than the speed of light how are we wired to understand our losses in this age?
Well, the only answer of the narrative of personal responsibility is that you're to blame. It's you. It's your fault that you didn't succeed. It's your fault that you've been left out. It's your fault that you're alone.
My concern is that when this message is mixed in a dangerous cocktail of extreme political or religious rhetoric, it is a sure recipe for human beings to reach a breaking point and just snap. Whether that breaking point looks like mental illness or the equally dangerous weaponization of group think, human beings are extremely vulnerable to mass acts of terror when they are isolated, when they are hopeless, or when they do not properly process their pain and loss.
The place where we find ourselves in America, and indeed in the world today is something that I fear we cannot simply legislate, bomb, shoot, or even simply pray our way out of. It is going to require that we actually find practical ways to get to know and love our neighbors. The battle that must be waged is one for our hearts, minds and souls. It is a battle that cannot be won with any amount of brute force. As banal as it may sound to the postmodern ear, it is a battle that can only be won with pure and unrelenting love.
So yes. I believe in personal responsibility. I believe that we are all personally responsible for reaching out to love the people among us who we may think are impossible to love. We are personally responsible to love the people who are not even worthy of love. We are personally responsible to love the isolated and alone among us. We are personally responsible. Indeed, we have to reach deep within ourselves and find the capacity, the personal responsibility even, to love ourselves. Because our problem is personal. It's deeply personal. It's so personal that we can't leave anyone out.
The lone wolf is a projection of our worst selves. And if we are able to hear his tortured call the lone wolf is a reminder that it's time for us to tend to the whole pack. Our survival just might depend on it.