Rush to judgment

Rush to judgment

I don’t think they even had an accurate count of the victims before everyone seemed to have an opinion on what motivated the Fort Hood murders.

And by “everyone,” I mean the cable pundits, the usual bloggers, and the guy who sits behind you at shul.

They only had to hear the name “Nidal Hasan,” or that his parents were Palestinian, or that he wore traditional Muslim dress when not in uniform, and the chatterati had enough to pass judgment. This was a hate crime. This was jihad. This was terror.

And here’s the thing — all of that may be true, and the more we learn about Maj. Hassan, the more likely it seems that much of it is true. But that doesn’t vindicate or justify the rush to judgment (including among those who immediately ruled out the idea that the killings were religiously motivated, with no more evidence than those who said they were). We seem to have come to a post-modern place where the need for speed trumps the quest for accuracy, where opinion supersedes facts, and trust in traditional authority — the police, the FBI, the military — has sunk to a new low.

Let’s start with speed. I understand why cable news has become a forum for instant analysis. They have 24 hours to fill. Their competitors — down the dial or over on the Web — are also 24-hour operations, with the potential to steal a scoop and audience share. They can’t wait for new information to dribble out at an official news conference hours away, or for a reporter to quietly and deliberately work the phones and streets to uncover a new angle. So they fill the time with prognosticators. Seers. Soothsayers. With the barest of disclaimers (“We can’t say for sure, Bill,” or “Mind you, this is just a best guess, Keith”), they present the “truth” of the moment, barely apologetic when their certainty proves false.

I have a harder time understanding the audience for instant judgment. Blame all the usual suspects: Short attention spans, a diet of cop shows where a murder is solved every 60 minutes, minus commercials. And the 24-hour news cycle bewitches the consumer the same way it bedevils the producer. Where once we waited for the evening news or morning paper — and the passage of an appropriate interval during which reporters could actually, well, report — we now simply turn on TV or fire up the Web and expect news. New news, even when there’s nothing new. Not yet.

But those are explanations, not excuses. We each have in us the power of delaying instant gratification. We tell our kids about it all the time. So what’s the rush? What harm would it do us to wait for the facts to come in?

Except too many of us see plenty of harm in waiting. Because in the interval between opinion and fact, we can score our political points and settle ideological scores. That’s where opinion is so much better than fact. Because if you can get the media to debate what can’t be known for sure, you can say almost anything. You can float your trial balloon, and even if it crashes to earth a few hours later (without the kid you swore was aboard), that’s okay. So what — the Oklahoma City bomber turned out to be a redneck, not a Muslim, as you insisted a few hours earlier? For a few glorious news cycles, you were the go-to pundit, and your ideas were being aired from Dallas to Dubai.

And if the killer turns out to be the radical Muslim you said he was? Then you have a new opportunity to bash the authorities. After all, didn’t they spend — what was it, 24 whole hours? 72? — offering boilerplate pieties like “That can’t be confirmed at this time” or “We continue to explore all leads” and “We’d prefer to wait until all the facts are in”? Imagine! You knew the answers all along. The fact that the investigators didn’t reach the same hasty conclusions only suggests that they were too incompetent, too blinkered, too politically correct to admit what was obvious to anyone with a blog or a guest shot on The Situation Room. It doesn’t matter if you’re Left or Right — since 9/11, everyone thinks the law is an ass. Conservative or liberal, we’re all hippies now.

As we continue to learn more facts about Hasan — his e-mails to a radical Muslim cleric, the frighteningly intolerant speech he delivered to fellow mental health professionals, his alleged shouts of “Allahu akbar” as he pulled the trigger — the less likely we are to regret the assumptions that gushed forth in the immediate aftermath of the shootings. But we should try. Not in the name of “tolerance,” not in the name of “political correctness,” but for the sake of the truth.

And the truth is worth waiting for.

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