The media's silly Fort Hood coverage

Everyone wants to debate terrorism and political correctness, but the real story is the failure of Army medicine

Published November 12, 2009 8:13PM (EST)

in  Fort Hood, Texas, Thursday, Nov. 5, 2009.  (AP Photo/Michael Thomas)    (Michael Thomas)
in Fort Hood, Texas, Thursday, Nov. 5, 2009. (AP Photo/Michael Thomas) (Michael Thomas)

The conventional narrative of the Fort Hood shootings, one week later, has been distinguished by the reporting of unconfirmed -- and sometimes incorrect -- details and the drawing of dubious conclusions. The only thing that suggests the current story will withstand the test of time better than the initial Pat Tillman myth (that he died in combat, rather than by friendly fire), or the overheated tale of heroism by Jessica Lynch in 2003 (which Lynch herself protested), is that two basic facts seem clear: The shootings certainly happened, and given the number of eyewitnesses, it's almost certain that Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan did it.

The fact that it was first incorrectly reported that Hasan died in the shootings, and that he was in cahoots with other perpetrators, may well be fairly chalked up to confusion during that first chaotic day. Other details, however, continue to unravel a week later. The media debate provoked by the Hasan incident is equally off-topic and unreliable. As someone who's been asked to talk about the shootings because of my work covering the poor psychological care given to returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, I've had a front-row seat on the way preconceived biases are distorting the debate.

First, the ongoing factual unraveling of the narrative. As the New York Times reported this Thursday, initial information seized on by talk shows that Sgt. Kimberly Munley, a petite police officer, bravely brought down Hasan in a hail of gunfire in which she was also wounded was, well, also not true. Munley, it seems, just got shot. Senior Sgt. Mark Todd actually shot Hasan to the ground and cuffed him after Munley had already been wounded.

Also on Thursday, the Washington Post raised solid questions about previous reports that Hasan had tried to get out of his military service because of what he saw as a growing schism between his religious and military duties. While Hasan's aunt has said he wanted to get out of the military, the Post quotes an Army source who claims Hasan "did not formally seek to leave the military as a conscientious objector or for any other reason."

Despite some print publications attempting to keep track of these kinds of facts, a lot of media folks continue to ask the wrong questions and/or provide some of their own unlikely, or unsubstantiated, answers.

The Monday after the shootings, I got my first taste of how the story was embarking on a life of its own as I settled into a chair at one of MSNBC’s Washington studios to do Dylan Ratigan's “Morning Meeting.”

“One question being asked, among many, is whether political correctness stalled the response to possible warning signs from Maj. Hasan,” Ratigan said in his introduction. Ratigan then asked me if there had been “too much tolerance in this instance.”

Too much political correctness in the military? You know, the place where they fire you if you admit you’re gay? The Army has its share of challenges, but in a decade of covering the military, I certainly haven’t come across any evidence that the institution is somehow paralyzed by the burden of gratuitous political correctness. And while that might provide a convenient way for Army officials to explain, anonymously, why nobody prevented Hasan from killing 13 people -- “We are just too afraid of criticizing Muslims” -- I haven’t seen a shred of evidence to suggest this might be true.

The cover of Time magazine depicts another befuddling sideshow to the Fort Hood story. The cover is a picture of Hasan with the word “Terrorist?” over his eyes. “It is a story about why Maj. Hasan is a terrorist,” Time managing editor Richard Stengel explained on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” one week after the killings.

I’d heard this one before – the debate about whether we should label Hasan a terrorist, or the shooting as an act of terrorism. Right-wing media host Laura Ingraham railed at me on this subject on her radio show this week after I had referred to Hasan as being partly motivated by a “religious thing,” but I had failed to use the word "terrorism." “I say that you won’t call it what it is,” she shouted, “which is terrorism!” (I had called it "Muslim extremism" but that wasn't good enough for Ingraham.)

The obsession with that label “terrorist” seems beside the point. The real question is why the shootings were allowed to occur, and who, exactly, dropped the ball -- not what we call it all afterward.

Stengel explained on "Morning Joe" why he thinks that label is so important that it should grace the cover of his magazine, and he anchored his argument with some of the same tenuous logic I’d tangled with on "Morning Meeting." Once we come to terms with calling Hasan a religiously motivated terrorist, he argued, we can begin to tackle the real reason the Army failed to stop the shootings -- political correctness.

“People in the military say there is a lot of political correctness here,” Stengel explained. “There is a lot of fear of criticizing Muslims in the military and as a result, a guy like Hasan can get promoted up through the ranks. He became a major,” he explained. “I think we need to address this issue.”

In addition, one of Stengel’s key pieces of evidence that Hasan was a terrorist was the following: “This is a man who stood up before he killed people and said ‘God is great’ in Arabic,” Stengel announced.

That may be true, though I’ve been unable to find an original or credible source for this information. The original source seems to be a question from NBC's Matt Lauer to Fort Hood's Lt. Gen. Robert Cone on Nov. 6, the morning after the shootings. Lauer cited a relative of a witness to the shooting claiming that Hasan had said "God is great" in Arabic before opening fire. Cone responded: "There are firsthand accounts here from soldiers that are similar to that." Fort Hood, however, will not confirm this aspect of the story. “We are not at liberty to discuss questions related to this case,” spokesman Chris Haug said in an e-mail when I asked about the "God is great" story. “There is an ongoing investigation.”

Meanwhile, most members of the media continue to ignore the much more mundane, but seemingly more promising, avenues of inquiry that might explain why Hasan got away with murder.

Hasan was a military psychiatrist toiling in an overburdened, desperate Army healthcare system that will hold onto any warm body with a medical degree. Remember the Walter Reed scandal? The horrific treatment of traumatic brain injury and PTSD that has gone on for years? Army medicine has been dropping the ball on these issues for a long time. Given that history, it's not hugely surprising they'd miss warning signs with Hasan and just let him go on being a doctor.

Army medical officials, at least to my knowledge, haven’t been asked even the most basic questions. Why, for example, was Hasan allowed to continue counseling troops suffering stress from combat in Iraq and Afghanistan after, for example, delivering a PowerPoint presentation in June 2007 at Walter Reed warning of “adverse events” if Muslims were forced to kill other Muslims in battle. It’s hard to imagine Hasan being particularly empathetic with his patients. Imagine coming back from Iraq with mental problems from combat, and this is the psychiatrist who is supposed to help you heal? So far, the only reaction from Army medical officials to these issues seems to have been the decision to move him to the war front in Afghanistan, so he could be even closer to the troops when they suffer adverse mental reactions. That’s odd.

As for Hasan getting promoted to major, the Washington Post Thursday suggested a more likely scenario than political correctness. They need more bodies. The Army is short 2,000 majors and the dearth is particularly acute in Army medicine. As the Post put it, “virtually all Army captains are being promoted to major.”

The passionate determination to hang the "terrorist" label on Hasan, or rail against "political correctness" in the military, are just more symptoms of media stars more excited about hot-headed debate than covering the real story. And the real story may be sadly familiar: It looks like Army medicine blew it, once again. 

By Mark Benjamin

Mark Benjamin is a national correspondent for Salon based in Washington, D.C. Read his other articles here.

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