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Doubting San Bernardino

by Berry Friesen (December 10, 2015)

Do you have reasonable doubt that Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik committed the mass shooting in San Bernardino on December 2nd?

“Reasonable doubt” is the standard the government must overcome when it accuses someone of a crime.  It is a rigorous standard, reflecting democracy’s skepticism of government’s proclivity to abuse its coercive power.

Accusations of “terrorism” are especially suspect because the definition is highly politicized, constantly shifting to fit the agenda of those who rule.  When someone is accused of “terrorism,” we must be especially vigilant—more willing to articulate our doubts, more willing to take them seriously, not less.

I’m not saying that until an accusation of terrorism has been proved in court, we should have reasonable doubts about guilt.  Common sense is operative here; when persons wearing suicide vests are seen shooting civilians on the streets and then blowing themselves to bits (as occurred last month in Paris), their actions speak for themselves, even though the government has never been put to the proof.

But the San Bernardino attack, like the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris in January, 2015 and the bombing of the Boston Marathon in April, 2013, was not like that. Instead, in each of these three cases, the act of terror was completed and the unknown perpetrators left the scene.  Thereafter, the police identified suspects based on “witnesses” and/or “evidence.”  Later still, the police located the suspects and commenced gunfire so intense that it was almost certain to cause instant death.

In this pattern, the police show little interest in gathering information from the suspects. Police exhibit little concern of mistaken identity or that the evidence of guilt may be mitigated or contradicted by other evidence.  Moreover, the police seem intent on killing the suspects.

I find this pattern alarming, and I’m not alone. Beyond the doubts raised by specific details in the unfolding of the events, the actions of law enforcement raise an additional doubt in my mind: why are they behaving this way?

Consider Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the 19-year-old college student accused by police of placing a pressure-cooker bomb in the crowd at the Boston Marathon.  A homeowner called the police after discovering in his yard a bleeding young man hiding in a small boat covered with a tarp.   Many police officers descended on the scene, confirmed the presence of a warm body under the tarp and proceeded to pump at least 126 bullets into the boat.  Dzhokhar was very seriously wounded by the onslaught; at least three of the bullets fired by police found their mark.

He was unarmed when arrested and had not resisted the police in any way.  Obviously, the police wanted him dead.  They had already killed his older brother, Tamerlan, in a shoot-out the day before. (Go to and search “boston bombing” for extensive coverage of the many reasonable doubts that Dzhokhar was one of the bombers.)

In the Charlie Hebdo attack, the highly-trained killers made their escape from the attack in downtown Paris.  Later that day, police found their get-away car and inside, an identification card "left behind" that led police to name two local laborers, brothers Said and Cherif Kouachi, as the highly-trained killers.  The next day, the brothers were spotted and pursued; eventually they were cornered in a signage production business.

During the seven-hour stand-off that ensued, the brothers reportedly chatted with the business owner and a visiting salesman and allowed both to leave the building unharmed. Thereafter, the police assaulted the building with explosive devices and a helicopter. The brothers exited the building and were killed in a hail of gunfire.

In the San Bernardino attacks, one eye-witness reported to CBS News that she saw three tall, athletic men in black, military-style clothes enter the building and start shooting. Other witnesses reported two or three masked shooters (here and here and here), spraying gun fire. Still others said that amid the continuous gunfire, they recognized Farook's voice when one of the shooters spoke. No witness described any shooter who resembled the diminutive, 90-pound Malik.

Farook and Malik were pious, law-abiding parents with an infant child, living their dream in the USA. Farook had a good job, was liked by co-workers and had never caused problems for anyone. His name was allegedly given to the police after the assault by a witness who said Farook had unexpectedly left the event shortly before the assault began.  Farook and his wife died several hours after the shooting in a hail of police gunfire.  They were in a rented vehicle just a few blocks from their home, not far from the scene of the attack.

Much of the evidence of their “radicalization” has been produced by authorities from digital records. Apparently, it is assumed that no one but Farook or Malik could have created that digital evidence.

I am not saying that I know Farook and Malik were not the shooters, only that I have reasonable doubt.  The evidence is far from conclusive.  But the couple is dead and their guilt is assumed.  And the case is closed, or soon will be.

Of course, if Farook and Malik were not the ones who committed this terrible attack, then those who did remain a threat.  And members of law enforcement would themselves be culpable for framing them. What possible motive could be suggested for such a betrayal? And aren’t such thoughts beyond the pale, especially in a case like this that is so important and is receiving such intense media attention?

We’ll pick up those questions in upcoming posts.  If we take them seriously, they can move us beyond simplistic understandings of the empire (e.g., “who else but our country should be king of the hill?”) to an appreciation of how the empire creates the specific social realities that make its authority indisputable, even invisible.