Jumping to Confusion

We can’t know what Fort Hood means until we know what happened

It’s been just over twenty-four hours since Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan opened fire on his fellow soldiers at Fort Hood—more than enough time, clearly, for our pundits to begin opining on what it all means. And though those interpretations are varied, there is one headline that could apply to nearly all of them: Tragic Massacre Vindicates My Pre-existing Political Convictions.

Many of those convictions, of course, are about the nature of Islam, the character of Muslims, and the war on terror. Michelle Malkin is talking about “Muslim soldiers with attitude.” Andy McCarthy of National Review declares, “Nidal Malik Hasan committed a mass-murder under the influence of principles held by a disturbingly large percentage of the world’s billion-plus Muslims.” The blog Gateway Pundit provided this “update” to its readers: “This was jihad.”

But there’s plenty of conclusion-drawing from the non-conservative sections of the mediasphere, too. By 8:30 this morning, Newsweek’s Web site featured a column headlined “Is Fort Hood a Harbinger? Nidal Malik Hasan May Be a Symptom of a Military on the Brink.” Writer Andrew Bast acknowledges near the outset that “It’s hard to draw too many conclusions right now,” and then goes on for another 900 words about the stress of combat, the perils of PTSD, and the strain two wars are exacting on our military. And Gawker, leaping off the fact that Hasan was stopped by a female first-responder, concludes that “Ft. Hood Shoot-Out Proves Women Should Be Allowed in Combat, Already.”

Strategically, this rush to judgment makes a lot of sense: Given how difficult ideas are to dislodge once they’ve taken root, why let someone else stake the first claim to the correct interpretation of the Fort Hood massacre? If an interpretation is advanced that you find disagreeable, the most effective way to combat it is with an alternative (if equally speculative) explanation.

But at this point, any sort of analysis—whether it comes from a legacy publication, a niche blog, or something in-between—isn’t worth the electrons it took to transmit. That’s because there’s still plenty we don’t know about Hasan and his crime, and plenty of reason to expect that some of what we think we know is wrong. As Glenn Greenwald notes, a number of details from the early reporting have already turned out to be erroneous, among them the number of gunmen, the weapons used, and Hasan’s fate. Those questions seem to be settled, but others are still unresolved, including just where Hasan was set to be deployed, and how he felt about it.

The following accounts are all available from reputable news outlets at the time of this writing (Update, 3:56 p.m.: The link to the first AP story, and the headline of the NYT story below, have changed). The first two are from the Associated Press:

Army: Shooting suspect was bound for Afghanistan

WASHINGTON (AP) — An Army spokeswoman says the suspect in the Fort Hood shootings had been scheduled to deploy to Afghanistan to counsel soldiers suffering from combat stress…

It wasn’t immediately clear whether Hasan sought the assignment or was being sent against his wishes.


AP source: Fort Hood suspect was to deploy to Iraq

WASHINGTON — Defense department officials say the Army psychiatrist who opened fire on fellow soldiers at Fort Hood was slated for deployment to Iraq.

One of the military officials says Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan was in the preparation stage of deployment, which can take months. The official said Hasan had indicated he didn’t want to go to Iraq but was willing to serve in Afghanistan. The official did not have authorization to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Here is MSNBC:

It was unclear where Hasan was to be deployed. [Sen. Kay Bailey] Hutchison said it was to be to Iraq, but retired Army Col. Terry Lee, who said he worked with Hasan, told Fox News that Hasan tried hard to prevent his pending deployment to Afghanistan.

And here is the Los Angeles Times:

When he recently got orders to deploy to Iraq on Nov. 28, he became distraught.

The New York Times, meanwhile, is headlining its lead story “Suspect Was to Be Sent to Afghanistan,” though that claim appears nowhere in the article.

So, Hasan may have been on his way to Iraq, or to Afghanistan. If it was Iraq, the news may have made him distraught. If Afghanistan, he may have been willing to accept the assignment, or may have fought it. And this confusion, part of which is rooted in a simple either/or question of fact, surrounds an issue that may—or may not!—have been central to Hasan’s motivation and his frame of mind. What else have we heard that is just plain wrong—or even slightly, but significantly, off the mark?

It’s not fair to lay too much of this confusion at the feet of reporters, who are mostly diligent and conscientious, who are basing their claims in good faith on what they are hearing from their sources, and who are under tremendous competitive pressure to get the story first. But on a story like this, tendencies toward error, exaggeration, and inconsistency are built into the system, at least in the first days of reporting. In due time, a clearer picture will begin to emerge; in this case, we’ll even hear from the shooter himself.

There will be plenty of time for analysis. Until then, let’s all take a deep breath.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.