San Bernadino and Leytonstone: Culture, Reaction, and Labelling

Ourselves and our North American cousins share many similarities, but thankfully our views on guns are not one of them. Very rarely does this difference of opinion become so glaringly obvious, but this past week has been one such occasion.

On December 2nd, in San Bernadino, California, the married couple of Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik opened fire on a crowd of roughly 80 people with semi-automatic pistols and rifles. In less than four minutes, 14 people had been shot dead and a further 21 were injured. Four hours later, 23 police officers were involved in a shootout with Farook and Malik as they attempted to flee in a rented SUV. Both Farook and Malik were killed in an exchange where police allegedly fired 380 rounds of ammunition.

The dreadful mass shooting at the Inland Regional Centre had been the second deadliest in Californian history and the worst in the US since the Sandy Hook Massacre in December 2012.

Four days later, back across the pond in the UK, Muhaydin Mire entered Leytonstone Tube Station in London armed with a knife. From the numerous videos of the event we can see Mire stabbing and slashing at members of the public with eye-witnesses stating that they heard him say: “this is for Syria”. Two people were injured before police were able to taser Mire and arrest him.

These two issues are completely unrelated, but the events themselves and the handling of the events by the respective police forces, shows just how different US and UK culture is when it comes to crime and law and order.

Following the San Bernadino shooting the intense debate about gun control erupted once more. Ludicrously, there were those who suggested that the solution to such problems was more guns. Unsurprisingly the all American neo-fascist Donald Trump, never one to shy away from controversy and vile remarks, added his voice to this argument.

In a statement to the press Trump said: “If you look at Paris, they didn’t have guns, and they were slaughtered. If you look at what happened in California, they didn’t have guns, and they were slaughtered.” He continued, “I think it would’ve been a lot better if they had guns in that room, somebody could protect. They could’ve protected themselves if they had guns”.

Trump was not alone in putting forward such an argument, The Chicago Tribune ran a commentary piece under the title: “California shooting teaches us one thing: We need more guns!” The California Journal went with “San Bernadino shooting: ‘The biggest problem was that it was a gun-free zone”. These calls from the press were echoed by those of a New York State Sheriff who made a public statement urging more Americans to carry firearms.

As has become common following the all-too-regular mass shootings in the United States, gun sales and shareprices soared as members of the public rushed to buy firearms.

This “solution” of having more guns would be one such response to the knife attack that occurred in London. The argument being that if the members of the public had guns, the man with the knife would not have caused the panic and the damage that he had. Afterall, the person who brings a knife to a gunfight is the person who loses.

But if we are to unpack that suggestion, “let the public have more guns”, then it becomes clear that it does not provide a solution, but instead only increases the problem. For if the public were to have more guns, then the man conducting the attack in the tube station would surely have one as well. And if this man were to have been armed with a gun he would have caused more damage than the two injuries he did inflict. The Leytonstone stabbing would have become more like the San Bernadino shooting.

Though the issue here appears to be that of gun control, it is in fact the much broader topic of gun culture.

After killing 14 people and injuring a further 21, it is unlikely that Farook and Malik would have cooperated with police. Indeed, the evidence of explosives suggested that they had no such intention. But to repeat a statistic mentioned earlier, seven police agencies, with 23 officers, fired 380 rounds at the two individuals during the shootout that eventually killed them.

Police are now attempting to piece together why Farook and Malik acted the way they did, who, if anyone, helped them, and how can such events be prevented from occurring again in the future. All of these questions would have been a lot easier to answer had Farook and Malik been taken alive.

Perhaps it was not possible to have done this in this instance, but the US seems to have a policy of “shoot first, ask questions later” and it is failing everyone.

Whereas in the UK the police can be faced by an individual with a knife, and taser them before arresting them, in the US no such approach is even contemplated.

News broke on the 7th of December that Jason Van Dyke, a Chicago police officer, will not be charged with the murder of a 25-year-old man who was shot 16 times in October 2014. Van Dyke told an investigator that Laquan McDonald, the victim, was “swinging a knife in an aggressive, exaggerated manner”. Van Dyke said that he shot “in defence of his life”. The dashcam footage from the police cruiser paints a different story however.

Just four days before that, on December 3rd, 26-year old Mario Woods was killed in a “hail of bullets” by San Franciso police after they identified him as the perpetrator of a stabbing. Cornered by eight officers, with his back against the wall, Woods was killed in the street as horrified onlookers recorded the incident. 36 shell casings were found on the sidewalk after the shooting had stopped.

Such a reaction, to any crime, is a gross violation of power and an abhorrent way of attempting to preserve law and order. Murdering suspects does not bring justice and nor does it help to secure the trust and respect that the police need from the members of the public that they supposedly “protect and serve”.

It is one of the things that I am most thankful for, that in the UK the police do not act in such a manner. The Leytonstone stabbing, involving Muhaydin Mire, illustrates perfectly how a situation should be dealt with by police. Their actions that day have taken on a greater importance now that it has become known that Mire was suffering from mental health problems.

The actions of the police have come under close scrutiny here, but so too should the rhetoric of the media and our politicians. Both the shooting in San Bernadino and the stabbing in Leytonstone were called “terrorist incidents” by almost everybody who cared to mention them. But this label is unevenly distributed to the events in our respective societies.

Farook and Malik may well deserve the title, but if that is the case, then surely so too does Robert Dear who entered a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs on November 27th and opened fire on the occupants. Three people were killed and nine were injured before Dear was taken into custody. Three days previously five Black Lives Matter protestors had been shot in Minneapolis, but this event was not considered a “terrorist incident” either. And whilst Muhaydin Mire’s stabbing in London was worthy of the title, a stabbing in Oxford which occurred on the 7th of December resulting in the death of one man was not.

Religion and race are the two key issues in why events are labelled the way they are, and why police act the way they do. These deep-rooted prejudices are unfortunately not going to end overnight, which is why it is essential that we remain vigilant to their existence and active in our opposition.


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4 thoughts on “San Bernadino and Leytonstone: Culture, Reaction, and Labelling

  1. I take exception to this piece at a number of levels.

    1. “These two issues are completely unrelated” — except that both the London stabbing/attempted beheading and the San Bernardino shooting were both done by ISIS sympathizers/supporters.

    2. “Ludicrously, there were those who suggested that the solution to such problems was more guns.” So you don’t think armed guards posted at the building where the 2 San Bernardino shooters struck is a good idea or a necessary measure? Do you think the increased security measures San Bernardino is taking — including posting armed guards at public facilities — is a ludicrous step? Why would anyone support making schools and other public facilities armed guard-free i.e. “gun-free” zones?

    3. America’s gun culture is a major problem, there’s no doubt about it, but it’s hugely mistaken to attribute any and all shootings (police shootings, Planned Parenthood shootings, ISIS shootings) to that culture. Does France have a gun culture? Surely not, and yet look at the Paris attacks and before that, the Charlie Hebdo killing spree. Outlawing AK-47s in France has done nothing to keep them out of the hands of terrorists.

    Police shootings I would submit come from a long-standing history of brutality and corruption due mainly to lack of oversight that the revolution in smartphone cameras is beginning to undermine. Some areas that have adopted body cameras for officers have seen a dramatic decrease in civilian complaints about the use of force and yet the country’s gun culture persists in those areas. This suggests that these are actually separate and distinct problems even though guns are a commonality.

    1. 1) It was a stabbing, an attempted stabbing even. Not an attempted beheading. The weapon was not large enough and the man was not focused enough.
      And though I have seen that he apparently had ISIS material on his phone, he has also been deemed mentally unstable so his “support” for ISIS, like his grip on reality, is highly questionable.

      2) I think the entire country of USA should be a gun free zone. Australia got it right when they introduced stricter gun controls following a spate of mass shootings in the 1980s and early 90s. As Business Insider says “Australia enacted one of the largest gun reforms in recent history — and gun deaths plummeted.”

      Less guns is the solution, not more.

      3) I think this point is up for debate. Genuine terrorist incidents have nothing to do with culture, law, freedoms or anything else in society. But mass shootings on the other hand, have everything to do with gun culture. It is precisely because these people have such easy access to guns that these mass shootings occur. The terrorist attacks in Paris are not linked to any form of gun culture (existing or non-existent) in France, they are terrorist incidents. It just so happens that the weapon of choice for these terrorists was a gun, it could have been a bomb (Madrid, London) or a plane (New York).

      Here is a sobering piece from the UK press: “there has been more mass shootings in the US than days this year”. If you don’t think that the gun culture plays a leading role in this, then you are deluding yourself I am afraid.

      1. “I think the entire country of USA should be a gun free zone.”

        And I think we should all live in classless, stateless society without racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and every other needless nasty thing that currently afflicts humanity.

        How does talking about our abstract ideal end state help us get from A to B?

        How would you go about making the United States (where I live and presumably you do not), a nation of 300 million people who collectively possess ~300 million guns a gun-free zone?

        Repeal the Second Amendment and then get law enforcement to go on a door-to-door, garage-to-garage, shack-to-shack nationwide campaign to confiscate every single firearm currently in the hands of citizens?

        If you are interested in solutions, let’s skip the platitudes (where we actually agree) and get down to brass tacks. How do you propose we change this country’s gun culture?

        “It is precisely because these people have such easy access to guns that these mass shootings occur.”

        But again, you haven’t spelled out how you would change this easy access. In the case of San Bernadino, it was a friend of the shooters who bought the guns and gave it to them illegally. Would you try to ban assault weapons? For the first time in 20 years, a majority of Americans now oppose such a movie. What is your strategy to deal with that political reality? And how would you propose we deal with the millions of assault weapons that are already out there in people’s hands? Confiscation (I’m not opposed, but I’m thinking about implementation)?

        Unless you are prepared to really dig down deeply into these issues and answer questions like this, I’m afraid we’ll be stuck at the level of pious wishing and people are going to increasingly take matters into their own hands by buying more guns or drawing up individual survival guides (see for a useful example).

  2. Talking about ideals helps us to get from A to B because we then know what B actually is. Martin Luther King didn’t say: “here is a blueprint for how we get to a better world”, he said that he had a dream and then stated what that dream was. If I wanted to set out a fundamental plan or manifesto for how the US could lose its gun culture, I would have attempted to do that. However, that wasn’t the point of the article was it?

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