Washington Post delivers on deadline

I am always amazed (and I must confess, intimidated) by the quality of journalistic work that true professionals are able to do on deadline.

Of course, the Washington Post had a totally unfair advantage on other national-market newspapers when the story broke at Ford Hood. While Sunbelt newspapers were closer to the action on the ground (and some did not use that location to much advantage), the Post was able to turn its attention to the people who had the best first-hand information on the background of the alleged gunman.

Why? That’s the lede of the stunning early profile that the Post team turned out and had online last night — repeat, last night — while many other news outlets were struggling to make any attempt to cover the painful roles that religion and prejudice appear to have played in this tragedy. Here is how Mary Pat Flaherty, William Wan and Christian Davenport opened the piece:

He prayed every day at the Muslim Community Center in Silver Spring, a devout Muslim who, despite asking to be discharged from the U.S. Army, according to his aunt, was on the eve of his first deployment to war. Yesterday, authorities said Maj. Nidal M. Hasan, a 39-year-old Arlington-born psychiatrist, shot and killed at least 12 people at Fort Hood, Tex.

In an interview, his aunt, Noel Hasan of Falls Church, said he had endured name-calling and harassment about his Muslim faith for years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and had sought for several years to be discharged from the military.

“I know what that is like; I have experienced it myself while working as a bank executive,” she said. “Some people can take it, and some cannot. He had listened to all of that, and he wanted out of the military and they would not let him leave even after he offered to repay” for his medical training.

An Army spokesman, George Wright, said he could not confirm the report of any request to be discharged.

As authorities scrambled to figure out what happened at Fort Hood, a hazy and contradictory picture emerged of a man who received all of his medical training from the military and spent all of his career in the Army, yet turned so violently against his own. Hasan spent much of his professional career at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in the District caring for the victims of trauma, yet he spoke openly of his deep opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

He steered clear of female colleagues and, despite devout religious practices, listed himself in Army records as having no religious preference, co-workers said.

There are many, many unanswered questions and paradoxes — of course. The Post explored as many as possible on deadline.

The goal was to seek a balance between two sets of facts that had to be kept in tension, namely the allegations of bias against Hasan (can anyone doubt that this was a reality) and the evidence that many of his problems in the military were rooted in his convictions that it was wrong for the American military to be engaged in wars against Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan, beliefs that led to conflicts in the ranks of soldiers around him.

Earlier today, the Associated Press moved an update with a vivid image that may or may not link the faith element to the heart of the story:

Soldiers who witnessed the shooting rampage at Fort Hood that left 13 people dead reported that the gunman shouted “Allahu Akbar!” — an Arabic phrase for “God is great!” — before opening fire, the base commander said Friday.

Lt. Gen. Robert Cone said officials had not yet confirmed that the suspected shooter, Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, made the comment before the rampage Thursday.

Quite frankly, I have been teaching all morning and have not caught up with the flood of coverage in the past few hours. However, I do have many questions, primarily based on the excellent Post mini-profile and other major reports at dawn.

* Is it true that Hasan had taken special classes to fine-tune his skills with small arms? How does that mesh with his statements to his family about his reluctance, as a psychiatrist, to have any connection with combat or fighting?

* Has anyone seen a description of how Hasan was dressed at the time of the attack? Authorities will pursue any links between the alleged gunman and his victims or words that he spoke to them as the attack began. Was this totally random?

* Of course, investigators will pursue any potential ties between Hasan and terrorists groups. A key question: Had he in fact sought a discharge? Why would someone whose long-range goal was terrorism (the allegations lurking behind those small-arms classes) make strong efforts (described by family members) to leave the military?

* We are going to end up with a timeline of people testifying to two realities that must be kept in balance. One reality is the claims that Army personnel were biased against Hasan because of his Islamic faith. At the same time, we will need to know when he began expressing his controversial beliefs about the U.S. military role in the Middle East.

How much of the conflict around Hasan was based on prejudice and how much was rooted in arguments about how his beliefs were affecting his role in the military? For example, there are clashing reports about negative critiques of his work. What about those emails that he allegedly sent praising suicide bombers? There are many questions to be answered here.

Once again, the Post showed its readers that religious questions would continue to rise to the top of the list. There are paradoxes stacked atop other paradoxes:

Hasan attended the Muslim Community Center in Silver Spring and was “very devout,” according to Faizul Khan, a former imam at the center. Khan said Hasan attended prayers at least once a day, seven days a week, often in his Army fatigues.

Khan also said Hasan applied to an annual matrimonial seminar that matches Muslims looking for spouses. “I don’t think he ever had a match, because he had too many conditions,” Khan said. “We never got into details of worldly affairs or politics,” the former imam said of his conversations with Hasan. “Mostly religious questions. But there was nothing extremist in his questions. He never showed any frustration. … He never showed any … wish for vengeance on anybody.”

It is going to take a long time to assemble a final timeline for the events that led up to the massacre at Fort Hood, if, in fact, it is possible to accomplish that task. However, the team at the Post did an amazing job of starting that journey — on deadline.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Jerry

    Is it true that Hasan had taken special classes to fine-tune his skills with small arms? How does that mesh with his statements to his family about his reluctance, as a psychiatrist, to have any connection with combat or fighting?

    In the abstract, ask a member of the NRA why anyone would want to have small arms training. Of course it could be related but could be related is not is related.

    But I think one critical thing to keep in mind is the definition of terrorism:

    The unlawful use or threatened use of force or violence by a person or an organized group against people or property with the intention of intimidating or coercing societies or governments, often for ideological or political reasons.


    I highlighted the key part of that definition because it speaks to intent. And I think that is the question on many people’s minds. And motive matters considering that there are quite a few stories like this one http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/11/06/AR2009110602294.html that have appeared where someone starts shooting.

  • http://rub-a-dub.blogspot.com MattK

    “can anyone doubt that this was a reality”

    I can. He was an officer. Enlisted men wouldn’t dare to harass him because he is Muslim. Disrespect of any kind toward an officer is a crime and all enlisted men know it.

  • http://coltakashi.livejournal.com Raymond Takashi Swenson

    as a 20-year Air Force veteran and an Asian-American, I agree with MattK’s point, that direct harassment by enlisted men of an officer was highly unlikely, and harassment by a fellow officer was unlikely because officers are specifically trained to not display such prejudice.

    However, it is possible that he could have overheard enlisted soldiers talking among themselves in a pejorative way about Muslims and Arabs. He may have also heard about such prejudice from his patients, both Muslim and otherwise. That he took it personally, as if it were directed against himself, is a character flaw that pops up among people of all religions.

    Clearly, the people who committed the mass killings at Columbine High School and Virginia Tech and the Murrah Building in Okalahoma City were not Muslims. What the murderers all shared was their human ability to violently harm people who never did anything to them. Each of the killers justified their actions to themselves in his own idiosyncratic way. Islamic jihadism was simply the particular mode that colored the Fort Hood killer’s building anger and willingness to lash out at innocent people. For the Virginia Tech killer, it was the desire to be famous. For the Columbine killers, it was the playing out of revenge fantasies against more successful students and teachers. For Timothy McVeigh, it was playing a role in a conspiracy fantasy about the Federal government.

    Each of these killers was playing out a role in a violent drama, in which he believed his violence was justified in some fashion. Part of the calculus in each case was the killers’ view that the victims’ lives were worthless and could be sacrificed on the altar of the killers’ egos.

    This is not to say that the rationalizations used by the killers did not contribute to the carnage. Conspiracy theories about the Federal government have no value to society. Computer games that teach irrational violence have no value to society. The cult of personality that makes mass murderers famous has no value to society. And belief that religious differences justify murder has no value to society.

    We have taken steps against violent role playing by high school students, and against militia conspiracy nuts. The news media still cannot restrain itself from feeding the hunger of some killers for notoriety. And we ought to take steps to ensure that religious differences in general, and jihadism within Islam in particular, are not allowed free rein.

    The fact is that the entire modern movement of Islamic Jihadism is an irrational reaction to a collective sense of inferiority among Muslims over the dominance of historically Christian nations, and of Jews among those nations, in the modern world. The propaganda spewed out by Osama bin Laden and his ilk seeks revenge for imagined insults and humiliations reaching back to the crusades a thousand years ago! This kind of obsession with the trivial would be considered an emotional disorder for most people, but it has become a mass movement in Islam, which has few historical archetypes of peaceful, successful engagement with the West, and many of violent confrontation.

    The violence committed by America’s modern mass murderers manifests a common human failing, but modern Jihadists have promoted that failing as a virtue. It is as if violent militias were forming up all over the nation. Indeed, it is exactly the equivalent of the sponsorship of irrational violence that was offered by the Ku Klux Klan in the early 20th Century.

    Both the KKK and al Qaeda claimed to have religious roots for their violence. Both claimed to be defending their respective religions against Jews. But that does not indict all Christians, and should not indict all Muslims.

    At the same time, just as we recognized the evil enabling power of militias and fought against them, we should recognize the evil enabling power of Jihadism and fight it.

  • Ed

    Much as my general disdain for WaPo, I give ‘em credit for the depth so far on this. Much better than other reports I’ve read (which, admittedly, have been pretty much limited to my local rag and a few blogs.) Whether PC will eventually prevail remains to be seen.
    One thing they did not report, as far as I know, but reported by other media, is that he had been under discipline at one time for proselytzing. Certainly a “no-no” for someone in an official counseling position, particularly in the military.
    A “Jihadist” act? A “terrorist”? Or simply a single deranged individual. We may know if he comes out of his coma and is interrogated.
    There’s a lot more to this, and hundreds of trees will be killed to report it fully, If the MSM has the unPC courage to do so.

  • Jerry

    I think if we had an award for the best followup posts to a blog entry here, I would nominate Raymond Takashi Swenson for his. I think it was spot on.

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