Since Thanksgiving Day, the traditional start of the American holiday season, there have been five times where someone pulled out a gun and started firing into a group of people. Over those nine days, 21 people were killed, 35 wounded by random, unexpected gunfire, according to ShootingTracker.com, a website that records mass shootings in the United States.
Last Friday, this year’s 351st mass shooting took place in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where a white man shot up a Planned Parenthood clinic. Wednesday’s mass shooting in San Bernardino, California was number 353.
Friday, the FBI announced it was investigating the San Bernardino shootings as an act of terrorism.
For a mass shooting to be considered an act of terrorism, a legal threshold that must be met. Page Pate, a criminal defense and constitutional attorney, explains what that is on CNN.com:
Under federal law, the term ‘terrorism’ refers to any violent or dangerous crimes that “appear to be intended” to either (1) intimidate or coerce a civilian population, (2) influence government policy by intimidation or coercion, or (3) affect government conduct by mass destruction, assassination or kidnapping.
The first requirement is that the act constitute a violent crime under federal or state criminal law. In a situation involving a mass shooting, that requirement is easily met. Murder is the most serious, violent state crime on the books. Murder can also be a violation of federal law in certain circumstances. The killing of a federal officer is a federal offense, for example, as is any murder committed on a federal military base or other institution.
The second requirement is where it gets difficult. The crime must ‘appear to be intended’ to intimidate a group of people or the government in some way. Almost any mass murder would necessarily appear as an act intended to intimidate the people present in the area or anywhere nearby, but it wouldn’t necessarily appear as an act intended to intimidate an entire group of people who can be identified as a ‘civilian population.’
What about the previous 352 mass shooting incidents before San Bernardino? Has fear metastasized into terror?
The New York Times asked its readers to share their fears about mass shootings. The response exceeded expectations. More than 5,000 described how they “think about it daily” and “imagine the fear and chaos” that would take place if someone opened fire in their child’s school. One young woman said she finds herself “noting how people look” on the subway and where she could hide if gunfire erupted. A 30-year old man from Texas wrote “Whether it be a crazy terrorist or another crazy guy that thinks I’m a terrorist and wants to take justice in his own hands,” he feels like someone is going to shoot him every day.
Is this fear or terror? Or, are two intertwined?
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines fear as “to be afraid of something or someone; to expect or worry about something bad or unpleasant.” To be terrorized is defined as “to cause (someone) to be extremely afraid” or “to force (someone) to do something by using threats or violence.”
So, if someone changes their behavior or alter their thought process because they fear guns and the carnage they can wreak, have they been terrorized?
Five years ago, my ex-husband called me from a street corner in San Bernardino; he delivered vehicles to car dealers, and was waiting for his company’s van. He said: “I get scared. I wanted you to know where I was, in case I get shot. Out here, I never know. A black guy thinks I’m in a gang, a Latino guy thinks I’m in a gang, a cop thinks I did something. It could be a white guy who just doesn’t like me.” He is 6-foot-4, 300 pounds, an ex-correctional officer, brown skin and black hair graying fast. He said, “Then I get in the van and have to hear the radio turned to Rush Limbaugh, and I know he hates me.”
I listened to him for a long time, the sound of cars and people passing by as he stood there that afternoon, wanting me to know he was alive.
Right after the San Bernardino attack, fear revealed itself on social media. Twitter was awash with condolences and prayers for the victims and families. And then there was backlash of frustration that these shootings keep happening. Emma Green captured the reasons behind so-called “prayer shaming” in The Atlantic.
This is not the first time this idea—that prayer is not enough—has come up in the Twittersphere, or in politics. ‘As I said just a few months ago, and I said a few months before that, and I said each time we see one of these mass shootings, our thoughts and prayers are not enough,’ said President Obama following the October shootings at Umpqua Community College in Oregon. He was not denigrating prayer—in the same speech, he went on to ask God for strength and courage for the victims.
Others have been less nuanced. After Wednesday’s shootings, The Huffington Post quickly rounded up a list of tweets from politicians offering their prayers. ‘In short, basically anyone with a Twitter account shared thoughts and prayers in the immediate aftermath of the latest shooting,’ the reporters wrote. ‘Which is kind of them to do, of course, but probably not enough to stop the next one.’
This cynicism offers a view into just how much religion and politics have changed in the United States. Prayer and political action have a deeply entwined history in America. From civil rights to women’s suffrage, nearly every social-justice movement has had strong supporters from religious communities—U.S. history is littered with images like the one of pastors and rabbis marching on Selma, side by side with political activists.
Prayer and faith help many people deal with things that are beyond their control, like their fears. And there are those who, like Jessica Runck, a writer and actor in Los Angeles, will look fear in the eye, take a deep breath, and keep moving forward:
Having grown up in such a small, quiet town, I’m not used to living in a city that sticks out. Rather than watching the news in rural North Dakota and thinking, ‘That would never happen here,’ I now watch the news and think, ‘I can think of at least 10 places in L.A. that could happen, and two of them are down the block.’
It would be so easy to look at the world right now and close down — to lock up my heart and close my eyes and turn my back. But if I listened to that (very convincing) part of myself, I would never again fly home to see my mother or see a James Bond movie in the theater. And both of those would be tragedies.
The very wise Nelson Mandela said, ‘Courage is not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it.’