Illustration for the Ed Luce column

Source: Edward Luce Financial Times
High quality global journalism requires investment. Please share this article with others using the link below, do not cut & paste the article. See our Ts&Cs and Copyright Policy for more detail. Email to buy additional rights.

On the face of it, the San Bernardino massacre is the other end of the scale to the 11 September attacks — 14 dead against almost 3,000, a self-radicalised pro-Isis couple versus 20 al-Qaeda-trained terrorists, and an attack carried out on foot in a suburb as opposed to planes flying into New York’s Twin Towers.

Yet it has set off shockwaves that could alter the shape of next year’s presidential election. The US public has a new sense of vulnerability to an enemy within. It is hard to overstate San Bernardino’s impact on America’s state of mind.

High quality global journalism requires investment. Please share this article with others using the link below, do not cut & paste the article. See our Ts&Cs and Copyright Policy for more detail. Email to buy additional rights.

Even before last Wednesday’s atrocity — labelled a terrorist act by the FBI — fear of terrorism had overtaken the economy to be the US public’s top concern according to polls. Much of that was in response to the massacres in Paris last month that claimed 130 lives.

But the fear index has been steadily rising since videos of the Isis beheadings of Americans and others started to hit people’s screens more than a year ago. It is easy to downplay the public’s worry about improbable events — you are far likelier to die in a car crash, or even choke on a pretzel, than to fall victim to terrorism on US soil. But fear is not a statistical calculation. That is the point of terror.

What does this mean for 2016? The more anxious Americans become about the threat of homegrown terrorism, the less reassuring they find their administration. President Barack Obama was a paragon of calm in the face of speculation about the San Bernardino attacks. He cautioned people to await the facts but pointed out such massacres bolstered the case for stricter gun control laws. He showed similar restraint following the Paris slaughter, observing that it was a “setback” in a war against Isis that was nevertheless making progress. A few days later he said that pressing on with the climate change talks in Paris would be a “rebuke” to the terrorists, who wished to disrupt the west’s way of life.

It is hard to fault the content of Mr Obama’s response. Leaders should avoid stoking panic and weigh the evidence before acting. Yet his air of detachment has fed the perception that he is indecisive — or worse, that the measures he has taken so far to combat Isis have been reactive. Having initially dismissed the Islamist militant group as a minor threat 18 months ago, Mr Obama has been pressed into taking a series of incremental steps. This started with the air strike campaign and the gradual increase of US military deployments in Iraq.

Each move has been laden with caution. In October, the president said 50 special operations troops would be heading to Syria. They still haven’t arrived. This week another 100 were announced for Iraq. It is hard to escape the impression that Mr Obama is falling victim to a mission creep in which he does not believe.

The gulf between Mr Obama and his critics, particularly Republican White House hopefuls, is becoming rapidly more glaring. Now they have a new front — the domestic one — on which to batter the president. According to the FBI, the San Bernardino couple — Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik — had assembled a small armoury of weapons at their home, including pipe bombs, semi-automatic weapons and more than 6,000 rounds of ammunition. Partly because they were married, and did not need to communicate electronically, they were able to evade ­surveillance.

Whether they were inspired by Isis, or directed by it, the implications are daunting. Mr Farook was US-born and in a comfortable middle-class job earning $70,000 a year. The couple had their first child last May.

Their very normality is disturbing. Critics question why the FBI did not pick up on the fact that they were assembling such a large battery of firearms. Perhaps it is better to ask how the US police and domestic intelligence should have been expected to do so. The couple’s gun purchases were legal and they left few traces online — or off — of their extremist views.

The risk of more such atrocities is real and growing. So, too, is that of a counter-productive backlash. Both Isis and al-Qaeda leaders have called on supporters in the west to carry out attacks in their local communities. Earlier this month, Donald Trump, the Republican frontrunner, urged Americans to be vigilant towards their Muslim neighbours. If you suspect anything, report them, said Mr Trump. “Most likely you’ll be wrong, but that’s OK. Everybody’s their own cop in a way. You’ve got to do it.”

With a presidential election now in full swing, the stage is set for further polarisation that may play straight into the hands of Isis. Thirty-one Republican governors have said that they would deny sanctuary to any Syrian ­immigrants. Democrats, on the other hand, talk about tougher gun control. The two parties are looking at different realities.

The best example is the fate of a modest proposal to ban the 47,000 people on the FBI’s “no fly list” from buying firearms . The bill has gone nowhere — nor is it likely to. US authorities may stop you from flying. They may even have strong reasons to fear you. But God forbid they take away your right to bear arms.