Don't collectively punish Muslims

Story highlights

  • 14 people were killed and 21 wounded in the San Bernardino shooting
  • Sahar Aziz: America should not lose sight of our fundamental values

Sahar Aziz is an associate professor at Texas A&M School of Law where she teaches national security and Middle East law. She is a fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding. The views expressed are her own.

(CNN)When news broke Wednesday that 14 people were killed and 21 wounded in a mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, Americans were rightfully outraged. After all, it was yet another in a string of mass shootings in the United States. And Americans are also justified in wanting to know the motives behind such senseless violence.

But as we search for answers, we should not lose sight of the fundamental American principle of individual responsibility for wrongdoing, something that applies to all Americans, regardless of their religious background.
Sahar Aziz
Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik -- not the other 5 million Muslims in America -- committed this horrendous crime. And they appear to have planned it without the knowledge of their religious leaders or community's mosque. So, whether the couple's motives were an act of terrorism or otherwise, Muslims in their own community, much less across America, cannot collectively be deemed responsible for the crime.
    Like many mass shooters, Farook and Malik were clandestine in planning their attack. Neither their families nor friends seem to have had any idea that they obtained more than 4,500 rounds of ammunition, put together explosives and possessed semi-automatic weapons. Indeed, family members expressed the same bewilderment as the rest of us over what could have caused Farook and Malik to commit such an awful crime. Farook's mother, who was caring for the couple's 6-month-old child during the shooting, was told they were going to a doctor's appointment. Saira Khan, Farook's sister, stated: "I can never imagine my brother or my sister-in-law doing something like this. ... It's just mind-boggling why they would do something like this."
    Similarly, those who attended a Riverside mosque, which he reportedly stopped attending two years ago, say they never saw any indication Farook was falling prey to violent extremist ideology or associating with suspicious people. One congregant commented: "We were all shocked ... that that kind of nice person would do something like this. ... If you had told me that he had killed a bird, I would say, 'No way.'"
    Yet despite these facts, politicians have rushed to exploit the opportunity to instill mass fear among Americans that Muslims are a disloyal fifth column.
    Seeking to score political points at the expense of millions of innocent Americans, presidential candidate Chris Christie declared the next world war is afoot. Ted Cruz declared our enemies were at war with our nation. Not to be outflanked in this partisan political theater, as the Los Angeles Times noted, Donald Trump on Thursday announced that Barack Obama's "refusal to use the term 'radical Islamic terrorism' indicates that 'there is something going on with him that we don't know about.'" His inference is clear.
    What few seem to be saying amid all this is that the motives of two criminals who are Muslims should not be imputed to millions of other Americans who happen to have the same religious faith. The same applies to pro-life advocates in the wake of the attack on a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs and anti-affirmative action advocates after the killing of nine African Americans in a South Carolina church. Accused church shooter Dylann Roof faces federal hate crime charges related to murder or attempted murder on the basis of race or color.
    Painting an entire religious community with the broad brush of criminality imposes harm on people with no direct connection to the act. Now, some law-abiding Muslim Americans feel they need to keep their children at home for fear of backlash. Muslim women wearing headscarves, meanwhile, have expressed concern they may be attacked in public. And religious leaders are bracing themselves for hate crimes against their congregants and mosque vandalism.
    Sadly, this state of fear has become the new normal for American Muslim communities each time a Muslim in a Western nation commits or is accused of committing a terrorist act. But this is not the America we want to leave for our children. When we lose sight of our fundamental values, we make America a less democratic place for all of us. It may start with Muslim Americans today, but it is only a matter of time before the disease of prejudice will infect our society.
    As we mourn the tragedy that befell the victims of the San Bernardino mass shootings, let's ensure they are remembered properly. A good start would be to hold responsible the shooters in these horrendous crimes, not collectively punish all Muslims.