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San Bernardino Shooting: Was It Workplace Violence Or Terrorism?


We have here David Sterman, who is an expert on homegrown extremism. He's with the New America Foundation. Thanks so much for joining us, David.

DAVID STERMAN: Thanks for having me.

WERTHEIMER: Now, let me just ask you about what happened in San Bernardino. Do you see this as an act of terrorism?

STERMAN: At the moment, we don't really have enough information to say whether it's terrorism or not. Terrorism is generally understood as political violence against civilians or noncombatants. And we just don't know the motive yet.

WERTHEIMER: But the idea that they should have shown up in - with all kinds of automatic weapons, with - dressed in camouflage gear, suggests a level of organization.

STERMAN: Certainly. And that may be suggestive of terrorism, although public violence that's organized could also occur for other motivations, workplace violence rather than a political purpose.

WERTHEIMER: Workplace violence - you mean, like - like, as we - the very first occasions of this kind of thing, postal shootings?

STERMAN: Right. Or for a variety of motivations that you see, for example, in school shootings and other locations that do not appear to be tied to a particular political ideology.

WERTHEIMER: Do you think that people will see something like this as a political act? Are they - the general public - likely to do that? I know that when the Planned Parenthood shooting was - obviously - it was a political act in a sense. But I think people tended to see that this person seemed to be very disturbed and put a lot of value on that.

STERMAN: There's certainly a tendency, when an attack occurs and it's not motivated or carried out by people inspired by jihadist ideology, to dismiss it as mental illness or a lone case. In fact, at New America, we track the deadly incidents since 9/11 and have found that more people have been killed in that time period by people inspired by right-wing views, understood as antigovernment, antiabortion or racialist motivations. Yet, those are consistently underreported. That, to some extent, makes sense; 9/11, the 9/11 attacks creates a true narrative of what the threat can be. However, even when looking at like instances of homegrown extremists, without turning abroad, there's this distinction in coverage and narrative.

WERTHEIMER: So very briefly - we have, like, maybe 10 seconds - is there anything to do about this?

STERMAN: Gun control is certainly something that should be considered. However, when dealing with isolated or more isolated instances, it's very hard to actually prevent.

WERTHEIMER: Thank you very much. David Sterman, with the New America Foundation. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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