The FBI’s success in cracking the Apple security code to learn the last communications of the San Bernardino terrorists is an enjoyable victory at last for the uncool side. It’s a rare win for Officer Flatfoot versus the insular smugness of the Silicon Valley boys.
Apple’s PR offensive has been profoundly annoying in the last few weeks. All those puff pieces about CEO Tim Cook’s questing boyhood bicycling around the rural lanes of his home town of Robertsdale, Alabama, quietly advocating gay rights, “too aware of the injustices around him,” according to a friend cited in The Washington Post and coming to work each day at Apple with portraits of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy on his wall. Now Apple is left spluttering that the FBI should be obliged to plug the tech giant’s security hole — and it’s the FBI’s turn to say We’ll Never Tell. Until we learned the code was reportedly breached by a crack Israeli forensic team, Cellebrite, it was fun to imagine some malodorous geek who faces bank hacking charges being flipped by the FBI to use his delinquent skills on the law enforcement side for a change. There must be a lot of fist bumps being exchanged in James Comey’s office this week.
But whatever the FBI finds on that disputed phone, there is one code I suspect they will never crack in the San Bernardino case: the coordinates of the mind and stone-cold heart of 29-year-old Tashfeen Malik, the female half of the couple that murdered 14 innocent people and wounded 22 others at a San Bernardino County Department of Public Health holiday party. Even four months later I am still morbidly fascinated by her flat fleshy face with its blank stare beneath the hijab, the face that was caught that day in 2014 by Chicago O’Hare Airport’s security camera. Behind her in the picture looms the other killer, her hulking, bespectacled husband with the chin-hugging beard, but his face is somehow less disturbing. It’s the levelness, the implacability of Tashfeen’s gaze that is so haunting, the gaze of a woman willing to leave her 6-month-old baby an orphan as she drove the getaway car, past a townhouse in the placid, leafy suburb of Redlands — her own house, the house where her infant daughter waited with her grandmother for her mother to come home.
In The New Yorker, Bill Finnegan reports that Malik was active online, creating a pseudonymous Facebook page she called Larki Zaat — Urdu for “girl with no name.” As Finnegan reminds us, witnesses quoted in London’s Sunday Times said it was Tashfeen who fired first, “aiming semiautomatic fire at people gathered around a Christmas tree, knocking it sideways.” After the morning’s butchery, she knew her only mission now was to proclaim her bay’ah, her allegiance, to ISIS — and then to die. Will the FBI investigation ever unlock that lethal code, the code to Tashfeen Malik, the face of oblivion?