Over the weekend, reporters learned a great deal about Sgt. Kimberly Munley, the civilian police officer who was first on the scene at the Fort Hood massacre. But on Friday, there wasn't much information beyond "a woman saved the day." We considered writing about Munley for Broadsheet based on that information alone -- but what was there to say,"Hey, look, lady hero"?
Was there a lesson here about women in combat, for instance, as Gawker asked? No, probably not. It wasn't military combat, for one thing, and one exceptional woman -- whether she's exceptionally good or bad at her job -- doesn't teach us squat about women in general. And without something more to add, it seemed almost unseemly for a feminist blog to call attention to Munley's gender as a story in itself. Aren't we all supposed to be beyond surprise that a woman can kick ass by now?
But as I followed what people were saying about Munley, I had to wonder. When all we knew was that she was non-military, commenters (at Gawker and elsewhere) immediately started dismissing her as a "rent-a-cop," and somehow, the narrative emerged that she'd been directing traffic when the call came in -- suggesting that Munley was way out of her depth yet managed to get off a few lucky shots. Now, that's not just sexism; apparently, some military folks routinely dismiss Department of the Army police officers as glorified security guards, so if there's a larger lesson in Munley's performance, perhaps it's not about women at all but the general usefulness of civilian police on army bases. Still, directing traffic? Where did this stuff come from?
In reality, Munley was on her way to get her car repaired. And in reality, according to The New York Times, "Sergeant Munley, 34, is an expert in firearms and a member of the SWAT team for the civilian police department on the base." Furthermore, "[Director of emergency services] Mr. Medley said she had received specific training in a tactic called active shooter protocol, which was intended for this kind of situation." She's also served in the army and used to work for the Wrightsville, NC, police force, where she once "wrestled a large man off [her partner] after the man had pinned him down and was trying to take his gun." (Munley, who's 5'4", "earned the nickname Mighty Mouse for that.") It's a fine resume for responding to such a crisis, yet the assumption that she was ill-prepared to do what she did spread quickly. Was that because of the disdain for Department of Army police? Because it's a better story if a traffic cop springs into unexpected heroic action? Or because she's a woman? It's impossible to say for sure, but if I had to guess, I'd go with all three.
Interestingly, now that we know Munley had the training to be a hero, the story is shifting to suggest that perhaps she's not -- or at least not the big hero. Last week, reports mentioned that another civilian police officer was on the scene at roughly the same time, but he went unnamed and all but unnoticed as Munley was credited with bringing Hasan down. Over the weekend that other officer, Sgt. Mark Todd, told the Associated Press that he "lost track of Munley" in the chaos, but after he fired on the shooter, "Hasan flinched... then slid down against a telephone pole and fell on his back." While Munley lay wounded, Todd approached Hasan, kicked the gun out of his hand, and handcuffed him.
Hasan was shot four times, and officials aren't sure yet whether Todd or Munley fired the bullet that stopped him. So already, the chatter is starting -- is Kimberly Munley just another Jessica Lynch, another female hero who really wasn't?
Now, surely, Todd deserves more recognition than he was getting last week; at the very least, he also acted courageously and swiftly, helping to end Hasan's rampage. But so far, no witnesses seem to dispute that Munley got there first, fired at Hasan, appears to have hit him in the torso, and took three bullets herself. Are we really supposed to believe reports of those efforts were fabricated, rather than just arguably overemphasized? Regardless of whose gun brought the shooter down, it still seems as though Munley was indeed a hero -- she just wasn't the only one. But then, no one thought Jessica Lynch's story was pure fiction at first, either, and now her name keeps coming up. Based on what we know now, the comparison seems quite unfair, but that doesn't stop people from making it (I've heard it three times this morning alone). As always, the most compelling story is not necessarily the one with all the facts.
It's certainly worth asking why Todd went largely unrecognized at first. Was it because he's a man, and it's more interesting if "Mighty Mouse" saves the day? Because Munley was seriously wounded, adding more drama to her contribution? Because Americans love a single hero who does the seemingly impossible a whole lot more than we love a pair of cops doing their jobs well? Again, all of the above probably played a part. But as with the question of why Munley's skill and training were underestimated at first, her gender can't be left out of the answer -- and more specifically, our surprise that a woman behaved so bravely and capably can't be left out, even if we'd like to believe we're beyond all that. "Hey look, lady hero!" really is a story in itself, even in 2009 -- which means that some people will inevitably doubt the veracity of such a narrative, in part because some reporters will inevitably inflate its significance. So, depressingly, there actually is a larger point to be made from that alone: As long as a highly trained female weapons expert doing her job remains a "man bites dog" kind of story, the truth about female heroes in traditionally male arenas will remain suspect, whether it's fudged or not.