That's what I thought after the initial shock of the terrorist shootings in that town subsided a bit. Like lots of other people here and across the globe, I was bewildered. Why San Bernardino, the heart of the Inland Empire? Why at a holiday party of health inspectors, a class of government workers who have no political profile to speak of? That this historic slaughter happened at a facility serving developmentally disabled people is only more bewildering, and sickening. Talk about a soft target.
I suspect that was the point. San Bernardino is in most ways perfectly livable but it isn't exactly a destination. It has deep history and distinct geography, true ethnic diversity and, despite not being a SoCal tourist destination, it's been immortalized as a Pacific coast pit stop in the classic jazz tune, "Route 66." But the modern iteration of San Bernardino has another, less optimistic side. I often see it as L.A. anti-glamour, the exurban embodiment of the California dream in perpetual struggle, the kind of place that's fueled the imaginations of California-noir writers like Joan Didion and Mike Davis. San Bernardino isn't nowheresville; its amenities include but aren't limited to a Cal State campus and a local symphony. But all that's lately been eclipsed by a working-class profile that's taken a beating since the crash of '08. The economic woes are not all of what San Bernardino is, but they're real--the city filed for bankruptcy in 2012 and hasn't emerged from it yet. If anybody wanted to do San Bernardino in further than it's already been done in, mounting a terrorist attack would be it. The city is now officially on the map.
And yet it's all so sadly ironic. Syed Farook was radicalized, but he was no foreigner. More than that, he was local: an American citizen who was a creature of the middle American good life, he was raised in Riverside, hard by San Bernardino. He was by all accounts conscientious about his job. Maybe he didn't have many friends (one we know about is Enrique Marquez, a neighbor and former co-conspirator who supplied the rifles used in the shootings) and maybe he was isolated by his devotion to Islam, but he knew very well the co-workers that he killed. He was a disaffected American like many who populate places like San Bernardino and nearby Redlands, where he and his wife and baby daughter lived. Those were places hit first and hardest by the economic instability and income inequality, places where whites are struggling more than they have in the past and people of color are struggling most. Places where the American dream has been exposed as problematic, to put it mildly.
I don't know where or whether Farook and his wife's religious ideology fit into this, but it's easy to imagine him seeing San Bernardino as a more urgent symbol of what's wrong with America--with golden California in particular--than Los Angeles or Hollywood or San Francisco. It's easy to imagine him targeting this place not because he didn't know it, but because he knew it so well. It was home.
Of course San Bernardino made for an easier target because it's a city that nobody watches. Now that it's under a microscope, I wonder if we'll all graduate to watching all the other unwatched, unremarked-on towns, not just in the Inland Empire but across Southern California. That's more than a notion--Los Angeles County alone has 88 cities, most of which are pleasant and livable but qualify as nondescript, including my own city of Inglewood. All these places share the same dream, though not the same fortune or status. Because they remain unrealized or simply in the shadow of Beverly Hills and Santa Monica, people might worry that they could actually be at a higher risk of attacks. Their lower profiles expose rather than protect them.
But that kind of creeping paranoia is in a way more dangerous than the attacks themselves. I'm thinking of pleasant but unremarkable Hawthorne, home to the aerospace innovators Space-X and right across the southern border of Inglewood. It's home to a sizable community of Muslims, many of whom are Pakistani. Watching Hawthorne more closely isn't going to change that fact, nor should it. The fact is that evidence of American decline, and overreach, is everywhere, the dark side of the good life that have enriched so many and that so many more of us are still chasing.
Bottom line is that we are all targets. That doesn't sound comforting, I know, but it is uniting. Wherever we live, we're all living in these troubling times that together. Why San Bernardino? That's easy: because it's a place that matters as much as any other.