Saturday, November 07, 2009

More on the Fort Hood killings

This is kind of a long post about some of my thoughts on the Fort Hood mass murder and the fairly pathetic national press coverage of it. Fortunately, not all the coverage was bad.

I won't try to link to all the articles at the Killeen Daily Herald/KDHNews.com site on the Fort Hood. But reading their articles reminds me of how having reporters familiar with the local scene can provide important context for a event like this. Reporters and TV infotainers blowing in New York or Washington are likely to have to rely very heavily on official spokespeople more than a competent local newspaper would. Knowing which locals can get a straight story and which will just blow smoke in your face is valuable for reporters. And a CNN infotainer isn't going to know that an hour after their plane lands.

But then, our TV infotainers who play reporters generally aren't trying to do actual journalism, either. The journalistic information that gets through is almost incidental.

Chris Hayes tweeted on Friday, "Today's probably a good day to stay clear of cable news." I remember on the first anniversary of the September 11 attacks, Eric Alterman wrote that the networks and cable channels wouldn't have nearly the problems covering the one-year anniversary that they had in covering the original attacks in 2001. Because, he said, "coping" is a story that they can handle. So I'm guessing that the TV "news" will be full of coping stories the next few days.


I do hope some professional journalists pursue the question of why the base commander was telling reporters hours after the attack that the man who, from the current state of reporting, was the sole shooter was actually dead. That's not a minor fact point.

Liberal media critics are starting to focus on the coverage of the Fort Hood killings:

Glenn Greenwald, A media orgy of rumors, speculation and falsehoods Salon 11/06/09 (He gives some credit to a conservative site that had some meaningful criticisms of the coverage along with their usual frivolous kind.)

Jamison Foser, Crazy comparison of the day Media Matters 11/06/09

Eric Boehlert, Newsbusters praise ABC News for getting Ft. Hood shooting report wrong Media Matters 11/06/09

Glenn G on why the early reporting can be disproportionately influential on how people understand the story:

But shouldn't there be some standards governing what gets reported and what is held back? Particularly in a case like this -- which, for obvious reasons, has the potential to be quite inflammatory on a number of levels -- having the major media "report" completely false assertions as fact can be quite harmful. It's often the case that perceptions and judgments about stories like this solidify in the first few hours after one hears about it. The impact of subsequent corrections and clarifications pale in comparison to the impressions that are first formed. Despite that, one false and contradictory claim after the next was disseminated last night by the establishment media with regard to the core facts of the attack.
Sadly, this advice is probably worth following:

I'm obviously ambivalent about the issues of media responsibility raised by all of this. It's difficult to know exactly how the competing interests should be balanced -- between disclosing what one has heard in an evolving news story and ensuring some minimal level of reliability and accuracy. But whatever else is true, news outlets -- driven by competitive pressures in the age of instant "reporting" -- don't really seem to recognize the need for this balance at all. They're willing to pass on anything they hear without regard to reliability -- to the point where I automatically and studiously ignore the first day or so of news coverage on these events because, given how these things are "reported," it's simply impossible to know what is true and what isn't. In fact, following initial media coverage on these stories is more likely to leave one misled and confused than informed. Conversely, the best way to stay informed is to ignore it all -- or at least treat it all with extreme skepticism -- for at least a day. [my emphasis]
And the Radical Right proves once again that a total lack of scruples can provide a short-term advantage in spinning the meaning of events. Or, at least that some people have a total lack of scruples. Sarah Posner reports in Conservatives Stoke Fear of Fifth Column Religion Dispatches 11/06/09. Also from Sarah at Religion Dispatches comes this story about Mike Huckabee supporter and Christian nationalist Rick Scarborough, Religious Right Leader Claims Hasan Motivated By "Animus Toward Christians and Jews" 11/06/09.

Progressives and other cautious news consumers are understandably and commendably concerned about applying the term "terrorism" to the Fort Hood killings. Not every mass murder is an act of terrorism. And not every act of violence by a Muslim or someone with an "Arabic-sounding" name is terrorism, either. And unlike the zealots of the right who are eager to feed Islamophobia, I'm still reserving judgment until I have a more reliable account of the facts. The base commander's statement hours after the attack claiming the shooting suspect was dead really has me wondering what is going on with the Army's providing of information on this case.

That said, it seems to me that what the base and eyewitnesses are reporting about the event certainly has the form of a terrorist act. I won't try to parse the vexed question here of how to define terrorism exactly. But it appears that the shooter targeted a group of soldiers in a crowded facility and intended to kill a number of them without any particular regard to their individual identity. Even if the shooter's motivations were primarily personal or pathological, what is publicly known of the killings at the moment certainly suggests that whatever they were, he staged the action in a way to spread fear. And that's a big part of what terrorism is about.

Having a broken national press certainly complicates understanding an event like this in major ways. The typical press script for Muslim perpetrators is "jihadist", and the Radical Right will encourage such interpretations in every way they can, whether there is a factual basis for it or not. But in the cases of non-Muslim far-right perpetrators, even ones who express explicitly political motivations for their crimes, the favored press script is the "lone nut".

And even when the perpetrator is explicitly motivated by a religious belief, and that happens not just in the case of anti-abortion terrorists but also other far-rightists motivated by Christian Identity beliefs, the major Christian denominations don't feel compelled to make specific condemnations of those acts of "Christian terrorism". Though anti-abortions groups typically do make declarations against the violence, sometimes practically rolling their eyes at their own hypocrisy as they do it.

And as much as those of us who have been critical of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan would like opposition to the war to be somehow pristine, some acts of opposition are not pristine. One symptom of the unpopularity of the Vietnam War and the problems it was causing more generally in American society was the numerous incidents of "fragging", the slang term then for assassinating unpopular officers in the field, sometimes by tossing a fragmentation grenade into their tent, which is where the term "fragging" came from. While I don't know of anyone who would want to encourage such a thing in any way, we could be missing something important if we just brush such incidents off as "lone nut" actions.

Here's an article from the San Antonio Express-News, Fort Hood shooter's neighbors say he was friendly, but a loner by Scott Huddleston 11/06/09, giving a "lone nut" take on the case. Is there ever a mass shooting case where we don't see this particular kind of stories? The reporter talks to the guy's neighbors, they say we was kind of quiet, seemed to be a loner, they're shocked to hear he might do such a thing. Later investigations into people who actually knew the guy show something different. What would you say to a reporter if your next-door neighbor was accused of being a mass murdered? "Sure, I used to hang out with him all the time and we watched sadistic videos together and talked about jihad." Why do reporters bother with these stories? Why do their editors wave them into print?

Pat Lang seems to be kind of a prick and he doesn't much like of what I have to say, at least not about his romantic fondness for things Confederate. He even invited me once to not quote him even when I agreed with him. But he often has useful things to say. And, prick or not, he actually has a point in Major Hasan's Alienation 11/06/09. Even though he opens with a quote from FOX News, Lang is actually careful about parsing facts (at least when it doesn't have to do with the CSA). He writes:

It is sadly amusing how much people do not want this to be about the man's religion or his Palestinian ancestry.

His relatives understandably want other Americans to believe that he was traumatized by listening to soldiers' stories about the wars. They certainly don't want people to think that there was anything about the atmosphere in his father's house that caused this man to reject the land of his birth and the obligations of his oath.
Lang is not pimping some phony wingnut theory here. He's pointing out that the accused shooter's political and religious outlook may have been major influences on his actions in the killings of which he is accused. While it's also sadly true - but not at all "amusing" to me - that the Christian Right is quick to look for religious motivations in Muslim perpetrators and quick to deny them in the case of religiously motivated Christian terrorists, understanding why people do such things involves looking at them as they are.

"Subject to revision as more becomes known," Lang adds several observations as of the time of his post, including:

- He avoided other officers socially and professionally to the extent he could manage. He avoided women colleagues. He would not be photographed with a woman. He asked his prayer community to find him a wife. They did not do so. He had no visible sexual relationships.

- He was transferred to Hood to do what the Army had trained him to do. Inevitably the Army decided that it was his "turn in the barrel" and sent him orders to deploy to one of combat areas to practise his medical specialty.

- He told people that he did not want to participate in wars against Muslims in a non-Muslim army. He tried to get out of the Army. Not surprisingly, the Army would not hear of that. Security camera video in a convenience store in Killeen, Texas outside the gate of the post shows him wandering around wearing strange garb apparently intended to set him apart in that town full of soldiers, present and past.

- He is reported to have uttered "Allahu Akbar" before he opened fire on what he seems to have seen as God's enemies.
I don't want to detract anything from the actions of Officer Kimberley Munley, who is reported to have stopped the shooter by wounding him with her gun and being wounded herself. But given the false information that even the base commander himself has been putting out - e.g., the accused shooter was dead, hours after the event - I'm worried that it may be a bit premature to turn her into a plaster saint, like this Huffington Post article seems to do: Kimberly Munley: The Hero Cop Who Ended The Fort Hood Rampage 11/06/09? Remember Pat Tillman? Remember Jessica Lynch? See Jessica Lynch Sets Record Straight: The Former POW Discusses Her Testimony In Pat Tillman Probe CBSNews.com 04/25/07.

There is the question of whether there were "friendly fire" injuries in the Fort Hood shootings. Current reports say that the shooter had two pistols, one semi-automatic. It's also my understanding that under base rules, the soldiers waiting for their shots and eye exams would not have been armed and that only police were allowed to carry their guns walking around the base. So it's not like there was a room full of armed soldiers returning massive fire at the shooter. Again, nothing at all against Munley. I just want to hear an accurate story.

I wonder at this point if it's advisable for Islamic groups to relexively issue statements condemning such actions. CNN's Tom Cohen reports in Alleged shooter's name prompts response from American Muslims 11/06/09 that the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) thought they needed to issue a special statement of condemnation just because the first reports naming the alleged shooter said he had a name that sounded kind of Muslim:

Ibrahim Hooper knows the drill.

When news first broke Thursday that a shooting at Fort Hood, Texas, killed and injured U.S. soldiers, the national communications director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations wrote a statement of condemnation.

He only sent it out later, when reports emerged that the alleged shooter's name was Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan.

"As soon as we saw what appeared to be a Muslim name, we issued our statement," Hooper said. "Until that time, we were praying that no Muslim would be involved."

That's the reality of crisis management for the Muslim-American community, said Hooper, who handles communications for the nation's largest Muslim civil rights and advocacy group.

Even without confirmation that the alleged gunman was Muslim -- there was no immediate determination of any religious affiliation for Hasan -- the mere reporting of a possible Muslim name required an immediate comment, he said.

"That's unfortunately the world we live in nowadays," Hooper said. "So often, Muslims are accused of not condemning these kind of acts."
But the reality is our xenophobes and Muslim-haters aren't going to stop condemning all Muslims for the acts of some. And their accusations that Muslims aren't loud enough in condemning violent acts by other Muslims is just a way of saying that all Muslims are guilty. Now it's reached the point that a group like CAIR is quick to condemn acts of violence by a Muslim even before it's clear that a Muslim is actually even a suspect! The Islamophobes will just say, yeah, that's fine, but they aren't enough Muslims condemning such acts and they aren't condemning them with enough condemnation.

It seems to me that CAIR's action in this case only encourage our sad excuse for a press corps to expect that the ordinary Muslims do have some special obligation to condemn violence by anyone with an Arabic-sounding name, an obligation going way beyond what American Christians consider themselves obligated to do. Does the National Council of Catholic Bishops issue a special statement every time someone named Murphy is accused of a murder? Does the Southern Baptist Convention, the country's largest Protestant denomination, issue formal condemnations every time a Baptist is accused of being involved in a shooting, political or not?

No, and there's no reason they should. What Christian denominations should do more of, though, is to address the very real problem of far-right Christian terrorism in a more serious way. Calling a permanent moratorium on frivolous comparisons between abortions and the Holocaust - most of which have more-or-less blatant anti-Semitic overtones - would be a good start.

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