At Sunday night’s Democratic debate, Bernie Sanders was asked a curious question with the lead-in, “I did want to ask you about a neighbor in San Bernardino who reportedly witnessed packages being delivered to that couple’s home, that it set off red flags, but they didn’t report it because they were afraid to profile.” I’ve heard this claim before. And it has been a big deal in conservative media because it feeds the narrative they most believe: that political correctness is destroying our nation and if we were just using racial profiling, we would all be safe. But it has never passed the smell test. It just seems too tidy and too much what people make up after the fact to contextualize this kind of tragedy.
Steve M at No More Mister Nice Blog is as up on this kind of “news” as anyone I know, and he explained that this claim isn’t even as strong as this. He wrote, “One neighbor of Syed Farook’s mother in Redlands, California, claims that another neighbor saw suspicious activity, but the second neighbor didn’t say anything because she didn’t want to engage in profiling.” And this claim itself comes from a single local television news reporter, although he reported it twice, so I guess that’s supposed to add credibility.
This whole thing leads me to the same place I find myself with the New Atheist crowd that claims that they just follow the facts. The brain doesn’t work that way. And I’ve seen far too many people unknowingly massage the narrative of things that have happened to them. It’s almost like Walter Sobchak in The Big Lebowski. Step one: I don’t know what happened. Step two: You know what might have happened? Step three: It definitely happened. So I suspect that this went something like this:
A: “It just doesn’t make any sense!”
B: “I know. Did you ever see anything suspicious?”
A: “Well, they were getting a lot of packages. It seemed a little strange.”
B: “Why didn’t you say anything?”
A: “I don’t know. Racial profiling?”
B: “You didn’t say anything because you didn’t want to be seen as a bigot?”
A: “Yeah. I think that must have been it.”
On the other hand, if it had been just some crazy person, the narrative that develops is that they didn’t want to get involved or they (Rightly!) respect other people’s privacy. Normally, people don’t say anything simply because they have their own lives to lead. If they went around trying to explain why people do every inexplicable thing they do, there wouldn’t be much time left for anything else.
This reminds me of David Mitchell’s video, Social Signals. It talks about our tendency to act out little scenes in public to signal what is really going on. So instead of just turning around and going back to your house to get the phone you forgot, you make a big production of showing to anyone interested that you have in fact forgotten something. But of course Mitchell is right: no one cares. That is, no one cares until you turn out to be a mass murderer. Then that “crazy” business of walking back and forth in the street comes to be meaningful in a way that it was not at the time.
It’s interesting that no one has gone back to San Bernardino to locate this neighbor of a neighbor who didn’t want to engage in racial profiling. But the truth is, even if someone did, it wouldn’t matter. At this point, it is impossible to say — barring a diary entry, “Those people across the way are up to something; I should probably say something; but I don’t want to be accused of racial profiling.” That sounds like something Glenn Beck will put in his next novel.