Civil Liberties

Don't Blame the San Bernardino Shooting on Political Correctness

'See something, say something' vs. 'mind your own business'



Should we be blaming deference to political correctness and excessive sensitivity for allowing—or at least, failing to stop—the San Bernardino shooting? Many pundits are saying so, but their reasoning takes us to a place where everyone's lives would be worse.

The signs were there: ISIS-pledged Islamic radicals Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik appeared to be plotting something, but at least one person says he was afraid to speak up for fear of being labelled an anti-Muslim bigot. National Review's David French opined that this shows us the high cost of political correctness:

As my wife points out over at Patheos, this is "Clock Boy" thinking. "If you see something, say something" has been transformed into "if you see something — especially suspicious Middle Easterners — say nothing." Otherwise you might be the focus of a social-media shame-storm and a multi-million-dollar lawsuit. In this case, saying nothing meant the authorities didn't discover Syed Farook's home-based "IED factory" until after 14 Americans were dead and 17 were injured

Let's be clear: "If you see something, say something" doesn't violate any person's rights, and there is nothing wrong with acting on a hunch that something feels a bit off. Political correctness has nothing to do with reality, and often the best eyes and ears for law enforcement are the people who know a neighborhood and are able to recognize unusual events. If ISIS or al-Qaeda established a program designed to decrease American vigilance, they couldn't do any better than the Left's hashtagging and public shaming. Responsible citizens should ignore the scolds and have the courage to do the right thing.

In a Fox News segment, French's colleague Katherine Timpf made a similar point (albeit in reference to a separate incident, in Britain):

If you see something, you should say something to keep people safe. It should be more important to keep people safe than to be politically correct.

Obviously, it's unfortunate that no one reported Farook and Malik to the authorities, thus preventing their attack. We are now enjoying all the benefits of hindsight, so it's easy to say that whatever obstacles got in the way of stopping the murderous couple should never have existed in the first place. I don't want the possibility of public shaming to stop people from doing the right thing, in the event that calling the cops is the right thing to do. Nobody wants that.

But let's be honest: most Muslims who go to the gun range, or have lots of Muslim visitors, are not planning terrorist attacks. Suspicion would be ill-founded. Nancy French says that we've succumbed to "Clock Boy thinking," but clock boy was innocent—the cops were wrong to detain him.

Sometimes, knee-jerk suspicions are valid. But a lot of other times, they are not. Consider child services investigations. Are children occasionally in actual danger at home, necessitating police intervention? Certainly. But well-meaning strangers (and less-than-well-meaning ex-husbands/wives/relatives) call the cops all the time in situations where the kids are perfectly healthy and safe. These interventions have a cost of their own: kids get taken away from responsible, loving parents; mothers and fathers go to jail and pay huge fines; families are split up. "If you see something, say something" has a certain allure in the wake of a mass shooting, but "mind your own business" still seems like an appreciably wiser rule of thumb.

I don't mean to defend political correctness—in fact, I write constantly about how ideologically-motivated PC concerns are shutting down the presumption of free expression at college campuses. But in a sense, this phenomenon is the exact opposite of the thing French et al are complaining about. On campuses, political correctness means that everyone who says something problematic is presumed to have malicious intentions. Political correctness assumes the worst in people: everyone is racist, or sexist, or bigoted, or homophobic, even when their transgressions are trivial.

Political correctness in the San Bernardino context appears to mean assuming the best in people—taking for granted that most people aren't planning a terrorist attack. And I don't really think we want to live in a country where that kind of political correctness is destroyed—even if it seems to have been a bad thing, in this specific case.