I have to tell you: I’m having trouble comprehending these mass shootings that slaughter innocents. The one we just had in San Bernardino has only exacerbated the problem. I mean, what devil can impel a couple, new parents of a 6-month old they left with grandma, to load themselves with weapons and take off in their SUV on a suicide mission? Anyone who’s ever had kids knows that the first 6 months with a newborn can seems like endless confinement: no sleep, constant worry over the baby’s health, being on call 24-7 to a bundle of cells that seems intent on fully occupying your head and body and living space with no competition allowed, no respite allowed. The other side of that coin is a unique outpouring of love and determination to keep that bundle of fragrance and softness and hunger and, yes, piss and shit, safe. Comfortable. Happy. In the face of which, abandoning it in the service of some call to kill as many of the presumed enemy as possible—would seem completely out of the question.
But it wasn’t out of the question to Syed Farook and his wife (or fiancée), Tashfeen Malik. They seem to have calmly dropped the baby off with his mother saying they had a doctor’s appointment, and then, in a sequence that still seems confused, attended a Holiday party at his workplace, the County offices, left in some sort of anger, donned their military gear and armed themselves with assault rifles and pistols and pipe bombs, and started killing co-workers at the party they (or he alone) had recently left. Fired nearly 100 rounds. Coldly and ruthlessly slaughtered 14 and wounded over 20. Then escaped, only to be caught by hordes of police, engaged in a horrific shootout, and shot dead in a hail of bullets.
And what I can’t get into my head is how the hell can people do such things? What motivates them? What can possibly override the parental instincts of an apparently contented couple and allow them to go on a killing mission that must have clearly held the probability of suicide? What can force them to override the love instincts that come with caring for a baby and switch almost instantly to the hate instincts necessary to slaughter innocent people at random? Because these people weren’t just responding with anger to some perceived slight at a holiday party. If the evidence reported is accurate, they had to have been planning this assault for quite some time. They had to have built up an incredible arsenal. They had to have made the pipe bombs. They had to have anticipated the assault and probable result when they arranged to drop off their infant—did they say tearful goodbyes? Did they know they’d never see their child again? We don’t know. All we know is that this was no impulsive killing spree. This was planned down to small details, or as small as such people are capable of attending to. As new parents can bring to bear. As a mother could manage to muster rather than attending to the biological imperatives demanded by her child.
Just today, it has been reported that Tashfeen Malik apparently had posted, under an assumed Facebook name, her attachment to and allegiance to ISIS. Indeed, it almost seems that this Tashfeen (Tashfiend?)—no photo of her has surfaced so far, with no explanation for why not; was she careful not to be photographed ever?—may have been the instigator that Syed Farook was awaiting to begin his rampage. She may have been the hard one (A co-worker said that Syed was different when he came back with his wife, that “he married a terrorist”.) We simply don’t know. He apparently met her online. Then decided to go to Saudi Arabia, where she was living (why did she leave Pakistan, her birth place? to end up in that hotbed of radical Islam, of Wahhabism?) and brought her back to America with him as his fiancée or wife. With another trip to Saudi Arabia in there somewhere, this time to participate in the holy pilgrimage to Mecca known as the Hajj.
But these are all details. They don’t really answer the root question: what could possibly prompt a couple to undertake such a murderous suicide spree? How do such people justify what they’re about to do? Are they moved by such a huge reserve of hatred that they can sweep past all moral concerns, all human attachments? It would seem. It would seem that something powerful, insistent must drive them. And in this case, one can imagine that even if there were moments when one or the other faltered in his or her resolve, the other, there constantly, would have fortified the partner’s flagging courage. Argued, like Lady Macbeth to her husband, perhaps, that they were in too deep now. Insisted that this was the only way to rectify what must have seemed, despite outward appearances, a grossly unfair or polluted or hostile world. And that the only option left was the abandonment of their child and the mass murder of innocents.
This bespeaks a human sickness so deep that I really cannot comprehend it. I mean I’ve had my rages, as who hasn’t? My imaginings of revenge—even with respect to these very killings. My awareness that in a fit of passion, I might do serious damage had I the tools. But this. This was coolly done. Planned. Anticipated so fully that both cleansed their computers well before the event. Stocked their arsenal for weeks or months. So we have to come back to the question: What do these people believe in? Do they really think that their action will result in something good or positive for them or theirs? Do they really think that they are striking a blow for the freedom of their people, their country, their religion? Do they really believe the fundamentalist madmen who spout their idiocy in their Internet postings? Are they moved by beheadings? Encouraged by mass murder in the skies over Sinai? By the massacre of innocents in Paris?
It is enough to make one despair for the human species. Humans are a murderous lot, yes; we’ve known it for eons. But humans are also an empathic species, like all other primates. We have brain circuits that inhibit hurting or killing others of our kind. Or at least others that are related to us by birth or by proximity or by religion or nationality. And many of us, these days, feel that inhibition in a wider sense, with respect to all others of our species, no matter the color of their skin, the language they speak. And even beyond that, to all species on earth, no matter their genetic distance from homo sapiens. And yet, humans can be hyped up by madmen; by perceived slights; by the mangling of their loved ones by foreign death from the skies—as in Pakistan or Yemen or Afghanistan when U.S. drones snuff out suspected terrorists and many innocents nearby. Yes. All that is true. But it doesn’t seem, so far, that either of these two Americans were specifically scarred by such incidents. Only that something prompted them to act like coldhearted lunatics; something managed to shut off their every human instinct to preserve life including the life of their infant, to avoid hurting others like them, and to deliberately murder as many people as they could.
I suppose that is, in the end, what puzzles the most. And perhaps this should be looked into. We can understand how drone operators in some cave in Colorado can push a button to shatter bones and bodies in a distant place perceivable on a screen. But we can’t understand how two people can enter a crowded hall and fire shattering metal into the bodies of people who bleed right in front of them. Though even that seems to be easier for humans than to inflict the same kind of damage with a knife or a sword or their bare hands. The more distance, that is, the easier to kill. Drones are, in that sense, the ultimate weapon: no danger to the presser of the button, no need to see blood and brain spattered over walls and oneself; just a button pressed and the horror goes on out of earshot, eyeshot, the smell and shudder of death. But not, of course, beyond the eyeshot and earshot and bloodshot of those on the ground. And perhaps that can help explain the hatred that seems to have overcome Syed Farook and his wife, and all like them. That the United States has amassed so much power that it can now rain death from the skies not simply from supersonic bombers far beyond the reach of any air defenses (and most nations in the Middle East lack even minimal defenses), but also from these fiendish little drones that can hover for days seeking out their targets and vaporize them without even the sound of bombers approaching. Without any risk to the killer directing the drone whatever. Perhaps in the face of that, threatened by silent, invisible death from the skies, one can override any human inhibition against killing, and kill with a will.
And yet. We still do not know. All we know is that something drove a husband and wife into an abyss; to abandon everything known and presumably loved in a mad drive to inflict as much damage as they could. And then engage in a suicidal gunfight with the law that they must have known would seek them out, snuff them out, orphan their child.
All we know is a horror we can’t wipe away.