When is a mass shooting more than a mass shooting?
For Arab and Muslim Americans, every report begins an anxious wait for the attacker’s identity to be revealed.
A ticking begins – but it’s not a clock or a time bomb.
Not everyone hears it, but the countdown is definitely there.
The beginning is very precise – someone is shooting, a bomb goes off, ammunition drops from an aircraft, a sniper is somewhere. The news hits the airwaves, and we begin to wait.
Our anticipation runs along the skin like bristles. We are hostages to the news. To news of identity and news of affiliation, of country, of origin and of religion.
We stare at our computers, run CNN in the background at work, text each other with questions.
Our tension and our fear mount and are multiplied with every speculation by a reporter or witness or pundit. We know, as Arab-Americans, or folks who appear to look like Arab-Americans, or Americans who are Muslim, that this news is different for us.
When shooters murdered and injured people inside a social service agency in San Bernardino, California, the speculation rose.
In the first reports, “terrorism” wasn’t suspected. It was called a “mass shooting” instead.
Experts weighed in – the difference between a “mass shooting” and “terrorism” is motive, according to Brian Levin, a professor of domestic counter-terrorism at California State University, San Bernardino.
You see, when the language of “terrorism” is used in the US, it rarely includes “mass shootings” and almost always points to an immigrant or foreign “terrorist”.
It can be a bit confusing because the number of mass shootings is so astronomical that it’s impossible to believe that they are not, in some way, politically motivated.
Let’s take, for example, the shooting at a planned parenthood clinic in Colorado last week. Robert Dear, the man accused of killing three people there, allegedly spoke about “no more baby parts” after his arrest. But this was a “shooting” and not politically motivated.
In October, in an Umpqua Community College classroom, Christopher Harper-Mercer killed 10 people. But this wasn’t an act of “terrorism”.
Those shooters were white Americans.
So, from the time when news broke of the deadly encounter in the social services office, we waited. Not Arabs, not Muslims, not “terrorists”, we hoped.
Because we – Arab Americans, Muslim Americans – know that while “mass shootings” conducted by white men are assigned to an individual, acts of “terrorism” belong to an entire community.
READ MORE: Reflections of an Arab-American
Last week in Fredericksburg, Virginia, when Samer Shalaby, the trustee of the Islamic Center of Fredericksburg, presented the plans for the expansion of an existing mosque to a town hall meeting, he was shouted down. “You are all terrorists,” said one person in attendance. Members of the audience applauded, although many had lived next to their Muslim neighbours for years.
The hysteria that followed the events of 9/11 appeared to have waned. But as Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump seems to be ramping up suspicion and hatred of all things Muslim, Islamophobia is on the rise. Take, for example, the gun shop owner in Florida, who previously declared his store a “Muslim-free zone” and then marked this year’s 9/11 anniversary with a discount for customers using a “Muslim” coupon code. Now, you can even find a guide to gun stores and gun ranges that have declared themselves Muslim-free.
It is the kind of discrimination that hasn’t been seen in the US since the “white-only” signs of the early and mid-20th century.
So we waited – knowing what the consequences would be if the shooters this time were not only “shooters” but “terrorists”. The vitriolic condemnation of religion, race and cultural background would be inflamed and would wreak havoc on our individual and collective psyches.
As more information emerged, the danger grew. A quiet young couple with a baby – a nice couple who didn’t seem political. As their identities became known, the press scrambled to dissect their associations and affiliations. The familiar language of “the jihadis next door” has begun.
So, what do we do now? How do we react?
A fuse has been lit. The names have been revealed. Our desperate hope that the shooters didn’t look like us, didn’t have names that sounded like ours, has passed. We will not be allowed to dissociate ourselves from them as everyone else can from those white, male “mass shooters” who represent no one but themselves.
So we wait and we brace ourselves. Because we know what is to come.
Elmaz Abinader is an author and performer. Her most recent poetry collection, This House, My Bones, was The Editor’s Selection for 2014 from Willow Books/Aquarius. Her books include a memoir: Children of the Roojme, A Family’s Journey from Lebanon, and a book of poetry, In the Country of My Dreams…, which won the Oakland PEN, Josephine Miles Award. Her plays include Ramadan Moon, 32 Mohammeds, and Country of Origin. Elmaz is one of the co-founders of The Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation (VONA/Voices), a writing workshop for writers of colour.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.