And that, folks, is really about the limit of what we can say with clarity and accuracy at this time. This is the very definition of a developing story. So we do anticipate that the list of known facts will grown and the list of possible motives will shrink. But right now, that is all we have.
This, unfortunately, has not stopped a whole legion of ideas, theories and all-out conclusions from taking shape and spilling out on cable TV, various corners of the Internet and, quite likely, many an American workplaces this morning — even before that last bit of social media information became known. On the list of public declarations: Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and a GOP contender for the White House posited, at a fundraiser no less, that that the shooting might represent an act of "radical Islamic terrorism." He did, in fairness, make it clear that he believed this only to be a possibility at this point.
Donald Trump went further, stressing that this might have been an act of radical Islamist terror. Then, never one to miss a moment to stoke the birther and Islamophobic fires, Trump stood before a microphone at a gathering of Jewish Republicans and noted that the president refuses to use this language. "There is something going on with him that we don't know about," Trump said.
Ben Carson has already called the shooting a "hate crime," although it is not yet clear that anyone at the facility was specifically targeted.
And these three are not alone. At the utterly unbridled and beyond-speculative end of the public commentary spectrum, there are those who described events in San Bernardino as everything from a long-planned assault driven by a quest for jihad to, as one Fox News commentator put it, a possible outgrowth of the state of feminism in "Muslim America."
Needless to say, many of those ideas are clearly connected to the pre-existing concerns, goals and obsessions of the people who voiced them. As Chuck Todd, host of NBC's "Meet the Press," put it on MSNBC Thursday morning: "Everybody has been trying to grab a piece of this and ... make it fit into their own political worldview. What I found interesting with the president is he was trying hard not to do that."
Conclusion-jumping might be a coping mechanism — a way that Americans everywhere are trying to get about the business of their daily lives without sheltering in their homes in fear today. And it might be particularly attractive to those who do not handle uncertainty well, those who enjoy a good stereotype or haven't ever experienced life on the villainous side of one. But those experiences, in turn, shape people too.
This is a moment in which some level of caution, reason and care is necessary. However, a survey of commentary generated by the San Bernardino mass shooting thus far, there are some prominent theories that have emerged. And those with eagle eyes will likely note a pattern among them: They all rely on long-standing series of widely-held ideas about often vilified and misunderstood groups. If embraced they can provide an emotional and even a legal justification for additional group suspicion and potential wide-spread mistreatment.
This folks, is dangerous territory.
Here are the most prominent theories:
This was an act of Islamist terrorism
At this point, there is no solid information that has been made available publicly that would affirm clearly that the shooters where religiously motivated or driven to shoot and kill 14 people by any interpretation of Islam. Many appear to have arrived at this conclusion because the two now-dead shooters who have been identified have names of Middle Eastern origin and have Pakistani roots. Or, because co-workers have said Farook was a devout Muslim — though they say he never discussed his religion. And then there is the newly revealed social media news.
But this has to be said plainly: Every American of Middle Eastern or North African origin (an estimated 1.68 million people according to Census data) is not a Muslim, and those who are are not automatically inclined toward religiously-motivated acts of terrorism. Those are simply the facts. So too are these: There are more than 1.5 billion Muslims in the world and anywhere between 5 and 12 million who live inside the United States.
There simply are not 1.68 million Americans, 1.5 billion Muslims worldwide or 5 to 12 million people in the United States of any faith engaged in terrorist plots and activities. Not now. Not ever. To conclude the opposite without specific information about the motivations of the shooters in the San Bernardino tragedy is antithetical to a whole host of American ideals.
This was a tragic manifestation of mental illness
It's critical that some level of logic and information rule here. While it is unlikely that a person operating in a psychologically healthy and balanced state would engage in the mass murder of one's fellow humans, there is no information available at this time indicating that any of the shooters have been diagnosed with any particular mental illness or emotional difficulties.
And with multiple shooters involved here, it is possible but unlikely they shared the same mental problems. While this, of course, raises the possibility that the shooters were, in fact, motivated by some sort of ideology, as discussed above, there is no evidence available at this time connecting this event to any particular faith. And while mass hysteria and group delusion are documented phenomena, sufficient information simply has not been uncovered, verified or made public to suggest that either played a role.
Why does this kind of caution matter? First, there are 43.8 million Americans who will experience mental illness in any given year, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Obviously, the vast majority of these Americans — who are many of our co-workers, family members and friends — do not engage in murderous rampages. This again, is simply a fact. As is this: Mental illness alone has not proven a solid indicator that a crime will follow, even after a gun purchase. That's the conclusion reached in 2014 by a respected research team at Johns Hopkins University. You can read their report here. We recommend it in part because the idea that simply curtailing gun access for the mentally ill would resolve the country's mass shooting problem is apparently quite common.
Finally, it is critical that those who need help get it. Anything — repeat, anything — that makes people more fearful that they will be shunned or regarded as universally dangerous will not make it more likely that people will seek said treatment.
This was a workplace shooting — an isolated indecent
Workplace shootings are, regrettably, not exactly unheard-of in the United States. They are, mercifully, rare — but not non-existent. In fact, the federal government gathers data on this phenomenon annually in a report called the Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries (CFOI). Of the 4,679 people killed in the workplace in 2014, about 16 percent died due to violence and injuries caused by humans or animals. And about 9 percent of these deaths — about 421 people — were murdered. Guns were the most common weapon used. As shocking as those figures are, they represent an improvement over 2013, when about 445 people became victims of homicide in the workplace.
So again, the idea that the events in San Bernardino represent something singular has to be tempered. Workplace shootings do not happen often but they do happen, costing more than 400 people their lives last year alone. And at least 2 million Americans are wounded as a result of workplace violence in a typical year.
Sticking to the "this was just one incident" conclusion might offer some self-soothing value, but probably does little to make American workplaces safer. The question to contemplate here is what would.