It's been nearly a month since Army Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, shouting "Allahu Akbar," gunned down 13 soldiers and civilians at the Fort Hood Readiness Center. Looking back at four weeks of news coverage and commentary, it seems to me that this saga has become an example of the "narrative" getting in the way of the story.
Everyone has their own narrative to explain why this happened and what it all means. To some, Hasan is a Muslim "terrorist" inspired by global Islamist jihad. To others, he's "just crazy." Is Hasan a symbol of a U.S. military on the verge of a stressed-out psychological breakdown? Or is he a textbook case of political correctness run amuk–of a society so concerned about offending Muslim sensibilities that it allowed a ticking time bomb to explode.
O'Reilly pontificates on Fox. Rachel and Keith mock O'Reilly on MSNBC. Is anyone else getting tired of this?
The echo chamber sounds on this blog, too. Writing four days after the Nov. 5 shooting, Zain Shauk asks why the media didn't use the "terrorist" label to describe Jason Rodriguez, who opened fire at the Orlando offices of his former employee the day after the Ft. Hood slaughter. Then, writing here one week after the shooting, Dalia Hashad questions why the news media didn't dissect the religious and ethnic identity of Seung-Hui Cho, the Virginia Tech student who gunned down 32 people back in 2007.
The answer to both those questions is obvious. The news media and the pundits didn't talk about Cho's and Rodriguez' religious views because they had nothing to do with the motivations of those two shooters. In the case of Major Hasan, it was instantly clear by his own proclamation that religion had something to do with his decision to open fire at Ft. Hood. Actual reporting over the next two days made it clear that the Muslim major was indeed motivated by his understanding of Islam. Not only that, Hasan had met, emailed and was apparently inspired by one of the most notorious Islamist hate-mongers on the Internet: Anwar al-Awlaki. (Check out the Dallas Morning News reporting on this.)
Those are facts, but at the same time, it's easy to make too much of those facts.New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman was guilty of that sin in his over-the-top column published over the weekend, which he tellingly titled "The Narrative." Diane Winston, writing in this space, and Sharmine Narwani, chiming in on the Huffington Post, were right to call him out on that, opining that there are plenty of mythological narratives to go around.
OK. Fine. Now let's stop worrying about the narrative. Let's stop worrying about whether we should label Nidal Malik Hasan a "ruthless Muslim terrorist" or a "tragically misunderstood, persecuted Muslim." Let's get back to the story, which involves some old-fashioned reporting to figure out what really made this time-bomb tick.
James Dao and his New York Times colleagues Scott Shane and James C. McKinley Jr. have given us a pair of solid, well-written stories based on actual reporting. At a time when hyperventilating bloggers (Q.E.D.!) and talking heads dominate the culture of news media, their hard work reminds us what being a journalist is really all about.