When tragedy strikes, like it did on Monday, September 16 in the Washington Naval Yard when a gunman shot and killed at least 12 people, it is human instinct to immediately seek an explanation. The media satisfy this need by unearthing facts and creating journalistic cohesion in a state of chaos.
It’s a natural and understandable process, but it can also be a dangerous one. Guns kill, but words can beget fear. If used thoughtlessly—like they were by the media following the event—words like “suspect” and “Thai culture” can be construed as synonymous. With media playing the eyes and ears of the public for traumatic events like this one, and some newspapers including the New York Post and Reuters posting headlines like “Navy Yard Shooter Was Dumped by Thai Crush” and “Navy Yard Shooter Was Dumped by Thai Crush”, the conclusions drawn from this controversial and traumatic occurrence can have unintended and harmful consequences.
When I heard about the Navy Yard shooting on Twitter, I did what most people first think to do: visit The New York Times website. In doing this, I knew, or at least hoped, that I would get all the facts in a clear and relatively unbiased manner. Upon reading just the first sentence in an article on the homepage titled “Suspect in Shooting Had Interest in Thai Culture and Problems With the Law,” I learned three things: the shooter had previously worked for the Navy, the shooter had previous problems with the law and the shooter had an interest in Thai culture.
The first two facts I could have guessed, but the third fact made me want to keep reading. I skimmed to the bottom of the article:
“In recent years, Mr. Alexis dated a Thai woman and began showing up regularly at Wat Busayadhammavanara, a Buddhist Temple in White Settlement, Tex., a Fort Worth suburb. He had Thai friends, adored Thai food and said he always felt drawn to the culture, said Pat Pundisto, a member of the temple answering the phone there on Monday.” (New York Times “Suspect in Shooting Had Interest in Thai Culture and Problems With the Law” 09.16.13)
In the 976-word article, approximately 200 words are dedicated to the shooter’s interest in Thai culture. That’s almost 1/4 of the article. Since it was published, the Times has removed the “Interest in Thai Culture” bit from the headline—a decision, to use their own words, which seems suspect— but the URL remains the same and the first sentence still mentions Alexis’ Thai interests before mentioning either his current status in the military or his previous history with violence.
In the grand scheme of things, Alexis’ interest in Thai culture is simply another fact about his character, like the fact that he “played computer games at the nighttime and all day.” But it is still information that feels unsettlingly irrelevant.
Why is the media more concerned in knowing whether he liked chicken pad thai more than pad see ew, rather than say, whether he liked to play Assassin’s Creed more than Madden football video games? Although none of these reports draw any explicit connection between Alexis’s foreign interests and his actions at the Navy Yard, their decision to highlight them implies xenophobic intentions and ultimately leads readers to draw their own biased conclusions.
After the bombings at the Boston Marathon in April, we saw the dangers of letting the public and news outlets attempt to draw their own conclusions about criminal suspects. Everyone from vigilante Reddit users to New York Post reporters wrongly accused individuals based solely on their foreign, and therefore suspicious, appearances. In describing Abdulrahman Ali Alharbi, a student and runner who was misidentified by the Internet that day, Amy Davidson wrote in a piece for the New Yorker, “And he was from Saudi Arabia, which is around where the logic stops. Was it just the way he looked, or did he, in the chaos, maybe call for God with a name that someone found strange?” (“The Saudi Marathon Man” 04.17.13)
Once the real criminals, Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, were found, conclusions were also immediately drawn about their religious motives.
When Ruslan Tsarni, the uncle of the Tsarnaev brothers, was asked what he thought provoked their actions, he fervently denied any religious ties. The explanation he gave for their behavior was simple: “Being losers,” he said. “Hatred to those who were able to settle themselves.
These are the only reasons I can imagine of. Anything else, anything else having to do with religion, with Islam, it’s a fraud, it’s a fake.” (NBC News “What motivated bombing suspects? ‘Being losers,’ uncle says” 04.19.13)
On May 16, 2013, CBS News senior correspondent John Miller said he had been told that Dzhokhar wrote a note following the attack that said “When you attack one Muslim, you attack all Muslims.” (“Boston bombings suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev left note in boat he hid in, sources say”) This note would be used against him as evidence in court following his not-guilty plea to all 30 counts against him.
Evidence is what our entire judicial system revolves around. Evidence cannot be created though—it cannot be prepared and served like a bowl of pad thai at the Happy Bowl Thai restaurant. Evidence simply exists or it doesn’t, and it’s up to the courts, not the media, to decide how to use it. To echo Amy Davidson, when the media outlets start speculating evidence, they often sacrifice logic in the process, which results in slander, gossip or worse: untruths.
For Ruslan Tsarni, there was neither truth nor logic in seeing the Tsarnaev brothers’ religion as a motive because it wasn’t their religion that rejected them; it was America. It was Americans. With Alexis, it wasn’t his rejection by his Thai girlfriend that set him off; it was instead perhaps his rejection by the United States Navy. Whether their religion was a motive or not, these men were “other-ed” by their own country in the same way that the media jumped to other them after they committed their crimes.
Almost exactly 12 years since the events of Sept. 11, media outlets have yet to shake the Bush administration rhetoric, which emphasizes “otherness” and instills a fear in the American public of foreigners and foreign religions, specifically Islam. It’s always frightening to read about gun violence, but at this point it’s almost equally as frightening to see supposedly reputable news sources like the New York Times sacrificing logic and straight reporting for a catchy headline or a unique angle.
If we’re really going to speak logically, Alexis’ love of Thai food, what he was wearing on the Thai New Year and whether he chose to meditate before or after “chanting” at temple on Sundays has absolutely nothing to do with his actions at the Navy Yard. What he did was inexcusable, but construing his interest in cultures outside of America as a possible reason for his actions is also inexcusable.
We should focus more on asking the right questions rather than creating convenient answers because, in the end, there is no logic when it comes to evil.
—Emilia Petrarca ‘14 is an English major.