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.
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