Was Kabul shooting over religion? Shouldn’t someone ask?

Q: What question has no answer? A: The one you don’t ask.

In Thursday’s shooting of several people at a Christian hospital in Kabul, the question would be: Could it have anything to do with their religion?

True, the answer doesn’t rest neatly on the surface. The shooter — horrifically, a policeman assigned to guard the hospital — didn’t shout the usual “Alahu Akbar” before gunning down Dr. Jerry Umanos and two visitors at CURE International Hospital. Nor have any organizations like the Taliban claimed responsibility.

So reporters need to look for clues. And there are a few scattered throughout news stories on the atrocity — clues that, thus far, don’t seem to have drawn journalistic curiosity.

The reports do have some positives, especially from a GetReligion standpoint. Most acknowledge the Christian nature of the hospital, its workers, and the Pennsylvania-based agency that runs it. The stories bring out the good done by the medical missionaries in Afghanistan. And they quote Jan Schuitema, the doctor’s widow, on her grief laced with idealism.

An example from CBS News:

“We don’t hold any ill will towards Afghanistan in general or even the gunman who did this,” she said speaking outside the family’s home in Chicago Thursday, her son, Ben Umanos, by her side. “We don’t know what his history is.”

She said that Umanos went to Afghanistan because he saw the need there, she said.

“Our family and friends have suffered a great loss and our hearts are aching,” she said. “While our hearts are aching for our loss, we’re also aching for the loss of the other families as well as the loss and the multiple losses that the Afghan people have experienced.”

Such eloquent quotes should have set reporters’ cliched “nose for news” tingling. But no, we get other cliches — “foreign,” “foreigners,” “Westerners” — that skirt religious considerations. And we get them with numbing repetition.

* “The shooting at Cure International Hospital in western Kabul was the latest attack on foreign civilians in the Afghan capital this year,” says CBS News.

* The latest in a string of attacks against Western civilians here,” the  New York Times said.

* “The shooting at Cure International Hospital in western Kabul was the latest in a string of deadly attacks on foreign civilians in the Afghan capital this year,” reports the New York Daily News.

* “Over the past three months, as Afghanistan is in the midst of electing a new president, 20 foreigners have been killed in separate attacks targeting civilians,” according to an NPR correspondent. “The attacks have occurred at a popular restaurant, an upscale hotel and other venues where foreigners congregate.”

The Los Angeles Times dipped into a think-tanker’s writings about civilians:

“They can be seen as the soft underbelly of the intervention, an easy way to hit Western governments rather than trying to fight well-armed NATO forces, and potentially a highly effective way of driving foreign aid and influence out of Afghanistan,” Kate Clark, country director for the Afghanistan Analysts Network, a Kabul-based research organization, wrote recently.

One quote, two cliches.

Yes, other “foreigners” have been attacked recently. Just since March, four journalists have been shot. But the hospital shooting poses extra questions.

What do Islamist militants reportedly hate about “Western” values, even in secular stories? The welfare of women, for one. Some current articles highlight topics like women in sports, education, law enforcement and Afghanistan’s parliament. And CNN explores the kind of influence that Afghan women could wield on the upcoming national election.

Afghan children, too, take a fair amount of attention in news articles. The stories look sympathetically at child labor, marriage, recreation programs, and child casualties in the ongoing war.

What’s the connection with the hospital shooting, you may ask? Let the Washington Post tell it:

In addition to his work with Cure, Umanos had been the community health coordinator for Empowerment Health, a nonprofit group dedicated to improving the health of Afghan women and children.

Umanos had worked for years to develop training programs to give Afghan women better health education and skills, according to Evan A. Russell, co-founder of the group.

Unfortunately, the same story parroted the clueless slogan: “The killings were the latest in a string of deadly assaults on foreign civilians in Afghanistan.”

Then there’s the New York Times account:

The shooting took place at Cure International Hospital, which specializes in the treatment of disabled children and women’s health issues. Afghan police officials said that one of the doctors there was hosting visitors from the United States who, after taking pictures together in front of the hospital, were headed inside when they were attacked.

Among the dead was a pediatrician from Chicago, Dr. Jerry Umanos, who had volunteered at the Cure hospital for almost nine years, treating children and helping train Afghan doctors.

The Times story also carried a strong religious clue …

A car pulled up a short while later, and the driver was told by the police to leave the area. When they explained that an officer had shot and killed three foreigners, the driver replied, “Good for him that he killed the infidels.”

… which it left undeveloped. Instead, it had various versions of “Westerners” and “foreigners” 11 times, almost as if to blunt the religious reference.

In only one of the nine stories I scrutinized over two days did the word “religion” even appear. That was from ABC News, which denied religion had anything to do with the attack. The brief, 128-word story quoted CURE International’s CEO, Dale Brantner, saying he doubted the attack was religious because the hospital had operated in Kabul for 12 years, and “Christians with strong beliefs are generally respected in the Muslim world.” Brantner said the hospital attack, and others like it, “seem more political than religious.”

Fair enough. Brantner is the top guy and has experience in the vocation. But he apparently spoke from Pennsylvania, not Afghanistan. He also didn’t likely talk with the driver in Kabul who voiced a death wish for “infidels.”

But CURE International firmly mates Christian values with ministry to women and children. As Christianity Today notes:

CURE International Hospital of Kabul is “one of the leading medical facilities in Afghanistan,” according to its website. The organization serves between 2,000 and 3,600 patients per month and specializes in training national surgeons as well as working with women’s health programs and children’s cleft lip and cleft palate patients. CURE International works in 29 countries worldwide so that patients can “experience the life-changing message of God’s love for them.”

Wouldn’t these have been rather ripe leads to follow in searching out motives for the murders? Better than parroting canned phrases like “Westerners” and “foreign civilians”?

Sure, it might not be true, or maybe only partly true. Christian values might be only part of the hatred that sent the bullets flying on Thursday. At the moment, it’s an unanswered question.

And how do you get answers? Start asking.

About Jim Davis

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