On November 5, 2009, Maj. Nidal Hasan opened fire at a troop readiness center in Ft. Hood, Texas, killing 13 people. Within hours of the killings, the world knew that Hasan reportedly shouted “Allahu Akbar!” before he began shooting, visited websites associated with Islamist violence, wrote Internet postings justifying Muslim suicide bombings, considered U.S. forces his enemy, opposed American involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan as wars on Islam, and told a neighbor shortly before the shootings that he was going “to do good work for God.” There was ample evidence, in other words, that the Ft. Hood attack was an act of Islamist violence.
Nevertheless, public officials, journalists, and commentators were quick to caution that the public should not “jump to conclusions” about Hasan’s motive. CNN, in particular, became a forum for repeated warnings that the subject should be discussed with particular care.
“The important thing is for everyone not to jump to conclusions,” said retired Gen. Wesley Clark on CNN the night of the shootings.
“We cannot jump to conclusions,” said CNN’s Jane Velez-Mitchell that same evening. “We have to make sure that we do not jump to any conclusions whatsoever.”
“I’m on Pentagon chat room,” said former CIA operative Robert Baer on CNN, also the night of the shooting. “Right now, there’s messages going back and forth, saying do not jump to the conclusion this had anything to do with Islam.”
The next day, President Obama underscored the rapidly-forming conventional wisdom when he told the country, “I would caution against jumping to conclusions until we have all the facts.” In the days that followed, CNN jouralists and guests repeatedly echoed the president’s remarks.
“We can’t jump to conclusions,” Army Gen. George Casey said on CNN November 8. The next day, political analyst Mark Halperin urged a “transparent” investigation into the shootings “so the American people don’t jump to conclusions.” And when Republican Rep. Pete Hoekstra, then the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, suggested that the Ft. Hood attack was terrorism, CNN’s John Roberts was quick to intervene. “Now, President Obama has asked people to be very cautious here and to not jump to conclusions,” Roberts said to Hoekstra. “By saying that you believe this is an act of terror, are you jumping to a conclusion?”
Fast forward a little more than a year, to January 8, 2011. In Tucson, Arizona, a 22 year-old man named Jared Lee Loughner opened fire at a political event, gravely wounding Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, killing a federal judge and five others, and wounding 18. In the hours after the attack, little was known about Loughner beyond some bizarre and largely incomprehensible YouTube postings that, if anything, suggested he was mentally ill. Yet the network that had shown such caution in discussing the Ft. Hood shootings openly discussed the possibility that Loughner was inspired to violence by…Sarah Palin. Although there is no evidence that Loughner was in any way influenced by Palin, CNN was filled with speculation about the former Alaska governor.
After reporting that Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik had condemned what Dupnik called “the vitriol that comes out of certain mouths about tearing down the government,” CNN’s Wolf Blitzer turned to congressional reporter Jessica Yellin for analysis. The sheriff “singled out some of the political rhetoric, as you point out, in creating the environment that allowed this kind of instance to happen,” Yellin told Blitzer. “Even though, as you point out, this suspect is not cooperating with investigators, so we don’t know the motive. President Obama also delivered that message, saying it’s partly the political rhetoric that led to this.* So that’s why we want to bring up one of the themes that’s burning up the social media right now. On Twitter and Facebook, there is a lot of talk, in particular, about Sarah Palin. As you might recall, back in March of last year, when the health care vote was coming to the floor of the House and this was all heating up, Palin tweeted out a message on Twitter saying ‘common sense conservatives, don’t retreat — instead reload.’ And she referred folks to her Facebook page. On that Facebook page was a list of Democratic members she was putting in crosshairs, and Gabrielle Giffords was one of those in the crosshairs.”
Yellin noted that Palin had “posted a statement on Facebook saying that ‘my sincere condolences are offered to the family of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and other victims of today’s tragic shooting in Arizona. On behalf of Todd and my family, we all pray for the victims and their families and for peace and justice.'” Yellin continued: “And I should point out that Republican leaders in Washington have said that this is not a partisan issue, this is about violence, as have some tea party groups. But clearly this is a moment to talk about our political rhetoric.”
“It certainly is,” Blitzer agreed. “But the question is, is there any evidence that the suspected shooter in this particular case was a Sarah Palin fan, read Sarah Palin’s website, was a member on Facebook, watched her tweets, or anything like that?”
“None at all,” Yellin responded. “And there is no evidence that this was even inspired by rage over health care, broadly. So there is no overt connection between Sarah Palin, health care, and the [shootings].”
Indeed, there is no “overt” or any other sort of connection between Loughner and Palin. If such evidence came to light, it would certainly be news. But without that evidence, and after a brief caveat, the CNN group went back to discussing the theory that Loughner acted out of rage inspired by Palin and other Republicans. Conclusions were jumped to all around.
And it wasn’t just CNN. Other media outlets were also filled with speculation about the attack and pronouncements on the state of American political rhetoric. What a markedly different situation from 15 months earlier when, in the face of actual evidence that Maj. Hasan was inspired by Islamist convictions, many media commentators sought to be voices of caution. Where was that caution after the shootings in Arizona?