Did Aaron Alexis fall into a hole in ‘American’ Buddhism?

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It’s a sad comment on our age that, in the first tense hours after the Navy Yard shootings (just over a mile down 8th Street from my office), discussions about cause and motive kept circling back to questions about religion. Everyone was waiting for the shoe to drop, especially during the hours when mainstream media outlets were reporting that there might have been three gunmen.

One gunman? All kinds of causes leap to mind. Three gunmen? That’s a different story.

Of course, information later began to bleed into public media about the background of Aaron Alexis, the Navy Yard shooter who was killed in this tragic attack. One of the most perplexing facts was that he was, at least at one point in his adult life, a practicing Buddhist.

Early on, many asked a fair question: Was this information relevant? If it was relevant, what did this faith connection mean? Would the information automatically have been relevant if the shooter turned out to be a Muslim from, let’s say, Detroit? How about a true fundamentalist Christian from Kansas?

You can sense tense nerves in an early New York Times report:

In recent years, Mr. Alexis dated a Thai woman and began showing up regularly at Wat Busayadhammavanara, a Buddhist Temple in White Settlement, Tex., a Fort Worth suburb. He had Thai friends, adored Thai food and said he always felt drawn to the culture, said Pat Pundisto, a member of the temple answering the phone there. …He was a regular at Sunday services, intoning Buddhist chants and staying to meditate afterward. On celebrations like the Thai New Year in April, he helped out, serving guests dressed in ceremonial Thai garb the temple provided.

At the temple, he met Nutpisit Suthamtewakul, who went on to open the Happy Bowl Thai restaurant in White Settlement in 2011, said the restaurant owner’s cousin, Naree Wilton, 51, in a phone interview. Mr. Alexis helped out at the restaurant in exchange for food and a room in Mr. Suthamtewakul’s house.

One of my first questions was this: Is there a rite or ceremony that officially signals that a person has “converted” to Buddhism? Journalists were saying that Alexis was “interested” in Buddhism, when the facts suggested that he was at one point actively practicing the faith and connections to a specific worshipping community were central to his life in Texas.

Next question: What happened when he moved to the Washington, D.C., area?

When writing about the connections between a given faith and a person who is — for good or ill — in the news, it is always wise to document, to the greatest degree possible, how this believer was linked to that tradition by facts on the ground. What congregation? Active in worship? Close ties to key leaders? Was the person following the work of particular writers or speakers?

As the religion angle was fleshed out, journalists began discussing another interesting angle: Aren’t Buddhists committed to peace and non-violence? Veteran members of the religion team at the Washington Post produced an interesting story focusing on that angle. The top of the story is quite blunt:

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Was the Navy gunman Buddhist? Does it matter?

YouTube Preview ImageSome 12 people were killed by a gunman at Washington, D.C.’s Navy Yards on Monday morning. This being near the U.S. Capitol, reporters hit the scene early. Details came out slowly and sometimes incorrectly, even when sourced to D.C. police spokesmen. It was a difficult slog for reporters trying to figure out just what happened.

The Washington Post had a team of reporters on the scene, including Godbeat veteran Michelle Boorstein who lives nearby. She and the others did excellent work, getting stories from survivors that helped give a picture of the chaos and destruction that hit the military installation. At some point the shooter was identified as Aaron Alexis. Somewhat surprisingly, two journalists at the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram actually knew him as their waiter at a favorite Thai restaurant. You can watch a video of them talking about the alleged shooter at the bottom of this story or embedded above.

Soon acquaintances were talking about what they knew about him, including that he was a regular worshiper at a Buddhist temple. Boorstein tweeted:

Suspect had been at least for a time a practicing Buddhist #navyyardshooting

She received some push back for tweeting this, which seems unfair. One person wrote, “Forgive me for thinking it’s of secondary importance at this early stage. It conflates his spirituality with his crime. I suspect deliberately.” Boorstein noted she was just sharing information, which is her job as a journalist.

It’s not that reporters always perfectly handle religious affiliation as it relates to news stories. But I think people would be hard-pressed to argue that religious affiliation is not a good piece of information to share, if well substantiated.

If the Post had been rushing to tie religious affiliation to motivation or make it the predominant fact of the case, that would be inappropriate — or would be inappropriate outside of any substantiating facts. But simply mentioning that someone had, at least for a time, been a practicing Buddhist? That’s simply sharing information that reporters have about someone of much interest. Again, this is all with the caveat that these pieces of information should be well sourced.

As for the Washington Post story on the alleged shooter, the religious affiliation was mentioned there, too. Here’s the relevant portion:

By Monday afternoon, a portrait of Alexis had begun to emerge. He lived until recently in Fort Worth, where he was seen frequently at a Buddhist temple, meditating and helping out. He was pursuing a bachelor’s of science degree in aeronautics as an online student at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

But Alexis also had been accused in at least two prior shooting incidents, one in Fort Worth and one in Seattle, according to police reports.

The story then spends many paragraphs discussing those prior shooting incidents. But it returns to the affiliation with the Buddhist temple. An assistant to the monks at the Wat Busayadhammavanaram Meditation Center is interviewed:

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