In early December, Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik, a married couple, opened fire at a holiday party at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, California, killing 36 people.
From there, a new narrative emerged: The events could have been prevented, if only ‘political correctness’ hadn’t gotten in the way. According to several right-wing news sources, neighbors of the shooters had noticed suspicious behavior, weeks before the incident. Neighbors claimed that the two had received “strange packages,” and had been working in the garage at strange hours. Another article quoted a man working in the area who chose not to report a “half dozen Middle Eastern men” coming in and out of the house, for fear of racial profiling.
In a later interview with Face The Nation, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump cited the San Bernardino shooting while encouraging racial profiling. “If they thought there was something wrong with that group and they saw what was happening, and they didn’t want to call the police because they didn’t want to be profiling, I think that’s pretty bad,” Trump told Face The Nation host John Dickerson. “People are dead. A lot of people are dead right now. So everybody wants to be politically correct, and that’s part of the problem that we have with our country.”
Yet a step back to assess the facts of that problem tell a different story, according to homeland security expert Juliette Kayyem “Its a mythology,” she told Boston Public Radio. “The person who said this at the [Conservative Political Action Conference] is the chief political correspondent for the conservative review. This is no minor blogger. So the right wing creates the narrative that if only we had been less PC, we’d all be dancing with unicorns and rainbows would be everywhere. All it takes is for us to not be so concerned about our racial intolerance. So they create a mythology about a lot of these cases, and I believe they make it up.”
According to Kayyem, very little evidence exists to support the narrative of the politically correct neighbor. “No one has found that neighbor, and the guy who says ‘I saw half a dozen Islamic men coming in and out of the house’ was interviewed extensively by the FBI, and as everyone now knows about the San Bernardino case, no one knew anything about what these two were doing,” she said. “There weren’t six Islamic men, and they have cameras and everything else proving that there weren’t six guys coming in and out.”
If the facts don’t line up, why does this story exist? Kayyem says these types of tall tales pop up all the time. “These terrorism incidents create a mythology… then everyone grabs the narrative that suits them the best,” she said. “For the right wing and conservatives, the narrative that suits them the best is, we need to go against Muslims and Muslim-Americans because bad stuff is happening.”
According to FBI reports, family members of the San Bernardino shooters did know that something was going on, and they were Muslim. “It wasn’t [political correctness] that was not having them go forward, it was that they were pretty scared,” Kayyem said. “They didn’t know what to do, they felt like the immigration and everyone else would be intolerant, and all bad things would happen.”
Donald Trump has vowed, as president, that he will banish Muslims from America, in an effort to fight terrorism. “I believe we’d be much safer in a world where we had better outreach to the Muslim communities and said, if you feel like something’s amiss, come to us,” Kayyem said.
The more dangerous effect of such false narratives, according to Kayyem, is that they perpetuate stereotypes and create unsafe spaces for Muslim-Americans.
“The idea that more Muslims are getting away with doing bad things because we’re all PC, compared to [the idea that] more Muslims are being accused of horrible things and being racially profiled because we’re all nervous, I think it’s the latter,” Kayyem said. “There are so many more false positives than false negatives.”
“Maybe they say they’re not going to talk to the authorities because they don’t want to racially profile, maybe they’re not talking to the authorities because they actually know nothing bad is happening,” Kayyem said. “If you saw… let me tell you, if three Muslim guys go congregating in the back of an airplane, those guys would be thrown to the ground faster than they could say, ‘I really just had to go to the bathroom.’”
National security expert and host of the Security Mom podcast Juliette Kayyem joined Jim Braude and Margery Eagan for Boston Public Radio. To hear the full interview, click on the audio link above.