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In San Bernardino, a Plea for Tolerance — Not Trump’s Terror Politics

In San Bernardino, a Plea for Tolerance — Not Trump’s Terror Politics

The street where a shootout last December ended the deadliest terrorist attack on U.S. soil since 9/11 is very familiar to Michael Ramos, San Bernardino County’s first Hispanic district attorney: It’s the same one where he grew up, in a house built by his grandfather, an immigrant from Mexico.

That’s why Ramos, a Republican who faces his own long-shot bid for state attorney general in liberal-rich California, is pushing back against the GOP’s presumptive nominee, Donald Trump, for politicizing his hometown’s tragedy. A married couple inspired by Islamic extremists went on a shooting spree in the chaparral and strip-mall strewn Southern California community, leaving 14 people dead.

“I won’t ever use the victims for political reasons,” Ramos said Saturday, even as he acknowledged the San Bernardino attacks have strengthened his name recognition statewide.

“Before, when people would ask where I was from, I would say between LA and Palm Springs,” he said. “Now I don’t have to say a word … everybody in the world knows where San Bernardino is. I wouldn’t wish that on any county in America.”

The Dec. 2 attack on a holiday-themed lunch during a training day for county health workers thrust San Bernardino, the largest county in the United States but also one of its poorest, into the harsh spotlight of the 2016 presidential election.

Almost immediately after the attacks, the now-presumptive GOP nominee cited them in demanding “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.” That followed his earlier suggestions for authorities to surveil mosques, and previewed Trump’s later calls to monitor Muslim-American communities.  

“We have Muslims — they’re wonderful,” Trump said in New Hampshire, a few weeks after the San Bernardino attacks. “But there’s something going on there …  these people in California, people knew he had bombs all over the floor, people knew it. Why didn’t they turn him in?”

Ramos, his county’s chief prosecutor, has made public vigilance and victims rights a key part of his campaign. But as California votes in Tuesday’s presidential primary — the largest and one of the last in the U.S. campaign — Ramos underscored the state’s diversity as a strength, not a security vulnerability. In San Bernardino County alone, 51.7 percent of the population is Hispanic or Latino, and 21.3 percent is foreign born.

For Trump, on the other hand, name recognition has never been an issue. Cheering crowds and jeering protesters have met his campaign stops throughout California before Tuesday’s vote.  

In Redding last week, Trump ramped up criticism of a Mexican-American federal judge presiding over a class-action suit against his Trump University real-estate program in Southern California. He claims the judge has a conflict of interest, given Trump’s vows to build a wall between Mexico and the United States. At the same event, Trump pointed to a black man in the crowd, saying, “Look at my African-American!”

He’s since suggested Muslim-American judges might also be too biased to serve, and even rejected his campaign’s directive to surrogates to tone it down. “The people asking the questions —those are the racists,” Trump said. “I would go at ’em.”

Though Trump has campaigned aggressively in California with an eye to the general election in November — and the state’s wealth — his disparaging remarks against broad swaths of the state’s electorate underscore how the voter registration math overwhelmingly favors his presumptive Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton. As of May 23, 44.8 percent of registered California voters were Democrat, compared with 27.3 percent Republican.

“Before, when people would ask where I was from, I would say between LA and Palm Springs,” he said. “Now I don’t have to say a word … everybody in the world knows where San Bernardino is. I wouldn’t wish that on any county in America.”

Minority voters lean heavily Democrat, and on Monday night, Clinton clinched the 1,383 delegates needed to win the party’s nomination. Still, her Democratic rival, Bernie Sanders, the Vermont senator who remains neck-and-neck in California polls with the former secretary of state, has vowed to stay in the race past Tuesday’s primary until the party’s convention in July.

Clinton and Sanders recently have made campaign stops in San Bernardino. Sanders didn’t mention the attack, but focused his criticism on Trump and his disparaging comments against minority groups.

“Donald Trump will not become president of the United States,” Sanders said in San Bernardino on May 24 to a crowd of about 5,000. “The American people are not going to support a candidate who insults Latinos … who insults Muslims, who insults women.”

Last Friday, Clinton used the political backdrop of the Islamic State-inspired attacks to speak to the people of San Bernardino. She directly accused Trump of endangering the country with his inexperience and incoherence on national security.

“You know, so well here, that the most important responsibility of any president is to be the commander in chief, to keep America safe, and to lead the world in a way that will make us safer,” Clinton said at California State University San Bernardino, in the gymnasium referred to as “The Coyote Den.”

Clinton and national security experts in both parties argue that divisive Islamophobic rhetoric makes the U.S. less safe. Doing so, they say, contributes to the narrative pushed by the Islamic State and other militant Islamic groups that America is at war with Islam and persecutes fellow Muslims. For example, al-Shabab, al-Qaeda’s Somali affiliate, in January used a clip of Trump repeating his call for the United States to ban Muslims in a propaganda recruitment video.

San Bernardino’s victims reflect California’s diversity.

They include Bennetta Betbadal, a mother of three who fled religious persecution as a Christian in Iran. Tin Nguyen had left Vietnam at age 8 with her mother. Juan Espinoza, the youngest of 13 siblings, was raised in Sonora, Mexico. And Isaac Amanios escaped violence and repression in Eritrea to immigrate to California.

Amanios reportedly shared a cubicle with San Bernardino shooter Syed Rizwan Farook, a U.S. citizen and a county inspector. Farook and his Pakistani wife, Tashfeen Malik, opened fire against his co-workers at the Inland Regional Center last December.

They also left a pipe bomb that didn’t detonate, though Dr. Michael Neeki, one of the first responders, didn’t know it at the time.

On Dec. 2, Neeki raced to the buildings downtown where he’d heard there was an active shooter. “When the call came through, it was utter disbelief something like that can happen here,” he recalled in an interview Monday.

The threat of violence was not new to the SWAT team doctor, but not because of his training in emergency surgery or tactical response.

Neeki escaped Iran, where he was repeatedly imprisoned and tortured, in 1986, and in 1989, he came to the United States, where he attended college and medical school. He was first detained as a teenager by Iranian authorities who found a Michael Jackson cassette tape in his pocket. Later, to prevent him from fleeing the country, he was conscripted into the military for two years during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s.

“Don’t forget about us. We’re going to be in this for the long haul.”

Now a U.S. citizen, Neeki calls himself a political independent. While he expresses support for some of Trump’s economic policies, he says the real estate magnate’s rhetoric reminds Neeki of the Iranian regime that he and his family fled. He also said American foreign policy is partially to blame for San Bernardino, and the rise of terrorist groups such as the Islamic State.

“Some people like to call it black swan, or a random event,” he said. “But we had 14 people dead, dozens wounded — innocent people. Their families are now suffering from that lack of awareness.”

“To me, it is a failure of our external policy leading to this,” he continued. “Our policies are pissing off everybody in the world.”

Beyond the politics, the physical, psychological, and even financial recovery has just begun for the people of San Bernardino.

Corwin Porter, assistant director for the county’s department of public health, which oversees the division decimated by the attack, was in the room that day. “They saw things they should never have to see for a lifetime,” he said in a Sunday interview.

Careful to stay away from presidential politics, he urged candidates and the public: “Don’t forget about us. We’re going to be in this for the long haul.”

San Bernardino County, one of the hardest hit nationwide by the recession with its county seat, the City of San Bernardino, forced to file for bankruptcy in 2012, is struggling with the unexpected and immense cost of the unprecedented terrorist attack. The price tag is estimated to be well over $20 million for emergency response fees, counseling services, and security renovations.

“We have no idea how we’re going to cover the cost going forward,” Porter said.  

Six months after the attacks, he racks his brain with questions of what could’ve been done differently.

“Someone in your own group turning against your own people without any signs or symptoms, it’s a scary thing,” he said. “Should we have noticed something? Should we have done something different? Even to to this day, I don’t know.”

On Tuesday, Ramos was flying back to California from South Carolina, which suffered its own mass shooting at a Charleston church a year ago. As president-elect of the National District Attorneys Association, Ramos said he’s eager to share the lessons from when terrorism put his own community on the map.

“That’s what Donald Trump needs to know,” Ramos said. “I truly believe if we are going to be a society that is civilized — what made America great to begin with — we need it to be inclusive, not exclusive.”

He added, “And I’m a Republican!”

Photo credit: JUSTIN SULLIVAN/Staff