We see the news alert on our phone — mass shooting in San Bernardino — and we immediately start contextualizing.

Fourteen dead, 14 wounded — later upped to 17, then 21 — so more than Charleston, fewer than Newtown.


Multiple shooters — initial reports said three. Very unusual. The FBI only lists two incidents like that since 2000, one in Oklahoma City in 2012 and one in Queens in 2011, but they didn't make national news. For that, you have to go back to the '90s and Columbine and Jonesboro, Ark., unless you count the D.C.-area snipers, which the FBI definition doesn't. We're trained to expect lone wolves — like the suspect in the Planned Parenthood shootings last week — and they don't usually have followers.

With that, thoughts immediately turn to Paris and terrorism. If it's that, maybe we would be shocked and scared in a way that we no longer are after the mass shootings we now experience on a daily basis. The attack sounds well planned — the suspects rolled up in a black SUV went inside a conference center and started shooting. But they left before police arrived — very odd for terrorism, and even for a garden variety mass shooting. The shooters wore tactical gear and masks and had assault weapons and handguns, so that could be terrorism or it could be a repeat of the Aurora movie theater shooting of 2012. The suspects left what looked like bombs, but that could go either way.

Next we hear that one of the shooters looked and sounded like someone the victims recognized. They were workers for the county health department at a holiday party, and some said one of them he resembled a coworker who had been there earlier, had some kind of dispute and left before the group photo. So now maybe we're thinking workplace violence — a disgruntled employee, like in the 2010 mass shooting in a Connecticut warehouse, or more recently the killings of a television reporter and cameraman in Virginia, though without the evident hunger for media exposure. Then again, there is the case of Nidal Hassan and the mass shooting at Ft. Hood, Texas, which sparked hot debates about terrorism vs. workplace violence.

Police report that one suspect has been killed in a gunfight, and then another. The second turns out to be a woman, a detail that just makes this case more confounding. A third person is in custody, but now we're hearing it was just the two shooters in the first place.

And it turns out they were Muslim. Islamic groups spring up to denounce the violence, as does the brother-in-law of one of the suspects, who says he spoke to the man last week and got no inkling that anything was wrong. On the video, you can hear a reporter ask, "Would you say he was a religious person?" We need to find a way to explain the inexplicable, so when it's a white person, we ask about mental illness, or racism or maybe violent movies and video games. When it's a Muslim, we ask about religion.

And he had traveled to Saudi Arabia, so we're again thinking maybe he was radicalized, but then again, he came back with a wife he'd met on the Internet, and they had a baby. His coworkers said they thought he was religious but that he didn't really talk about it at the office. He'd worked there several years. He was friendly and well liked, spent a lot of time out in the field as an environmental inspector. The office had thrown him a baby shower. He had taken paternity leave. Normal stuff. He was born in Illinois of Pakistani parents. We hear the wife was Pakistani and her background is now the focus of the investigation. President Barack Obama says it might be terrorism, it might not.

Either way, we ask about the guns. Two AR-15 look-alikes, which are generally illegal in California, and two handguns. Two of the guns were purchased legally, the feds say, and by one of the suspects. So clearly we'll have the debate about gun laws. California's are the strictest in the nation, and that didn't stop anyone here. Yes, but in a nation awash with guns — Black Friday this year was the busiest day ever for the FBI criminal background check system — and with national gun control laws caught in NRA-induced paralysis, there's only so much one state's laws can do. Speaking of the NRA, the call for arming county health department workers can't be far off.

Inevitably, all this will say far less about the people who committed such an act of horror than it does about us. We are not quite so benumbed by mass shootings that we don't pay attention to them, but we do now have such a terrible wealth of experience with them that they can be rapidly compartmentalized. We will watch, click, read and argue a bit. But there almost inevitably turns out not to have been any one thing that could have been done that would have clearly and unequivocally stopped a particular mass killing, so we won't do anything. We won't ban assault weapons that have no discernible purpose other than killing people. We won't institute nation-wide universal background checks to help stop criminals and the mentally ill from getting guns. We won't license gun buyers to discourage them from handing off weapons to people who shouldn't have them. And we certainly won't get into a conversation about whether it's wise for a nation to have more than one gun for every man woman and child.

We will briefly and obsessively look for clues to explain away this mass shooting, then we'll go on with our lives until the next one comes.