HEARSAY AND CONJECTURE ARE *KINDS* OF EVIDENCE

In early 2008 I wrote the following in the wake of the spree-killing-of-the-week at Northern Illinois University that left six dead and eighteen wounded (such an insignificant number on the contemporary scale of random American gun violence that, admit it, you've already forgotten about it):

Nearly every news item about the NIU gunman has quoted the DeKalb police chief, who noted that friends thought The Gunman’s behavior became “erratic” in the weeks leading up to the shooting. Pure hindsight bias, of course. Let’s say that instead of going on a killing spree, he simply went about his normal day. If you asked all of his friends today “Have there been any changes in This Guy’s behavior?” they would be highly unlikely to note anything or offer any serious concerns. However, knowing that he seemingly came unhinged and shot 20-some people, small (or perhaps even imagined) deviations in his behavior are impregnated with meaning. Every email, every phone call that didn’t get returned, and every day he showed up to work 3 minutes late suddenly becomes a “sign,” obvious harbingers of what was to come.

Hindsight bias is the kind of thing freshman psych majors learn but the media simply can't grasp. So I am unsurprised to say the least that we see much of the same "logic" throughout the reporting on the Fort Hood shooting. The shooter is clearly an individual who had a lot of issues and as we learn more, it may turn out that he threw up some red flags that should have earned the attention of his superiors. For the moment, though, we're getting a steady dose of ominously remembered conversations – and worse yet, second- and third-hand conversations – from a media anxious to hitch a ride on the USS Conjecture. Take this example of Pulitzer Prize-caliber journalism on CNN:

Nidal Hasan's family describes him as a good American, but several people who knew Hasan in his years at this Maryland military university say the high-ranking Army officer expressed extremist Islamic views. One says Hasan openly pledged allegiance not to the United States but to the Quran, and when asked of the constitution was a brilliant document simply responded no, not particularly.

 Our sources asked not to be identified because of the ongoing investigation, and the investigators wouldn't comment on the details they offered.

Whatever "expressed extremist Islamic views" means, to hear the Anonymous Sources Who Knew Him over the last week he appears to have been doing it 24-7. Could that be because a group not known for their sympathy toward and understanding of Islam is suddenly remembering everything about his religion as an expression of extremist fervor? Take for example the claim that he "openly pledged allegiance not to the United States but to the Quran." Here is the actual exchange:

"Is your allegiance to Sharia law or the United States?" students once challenged Hasan, the source said. "Sharia law," Hasan responded, according to the source.

Hmm. Is that a sign of extremism? What do you think the average buzz-cut, Bible-thumping, stereotypical military type would say if he was asked, "Which is more important, God or the United States? If you had to choose just one, would you obey the Ten Commandments or the UCMJ?" If we asked Catholics whether the Vatican is more important to them than the Obama administration, what might the response be? There are literally millions of Christian fundamentalists in this country who openly profess God before country, Bible before written law. My point here is not to debate the right-or-wrong of that. My point is simply that, in context, "God before Caesar" is not an uncommon sentiment among stridently religious people inside or outside of the military. Such a sentiment would only be a red flag in hindsight after the individual did something terrible. Or is Muslim, apparently, since I doubt the military higher-ups receive many urgent warnings about people in their ranks expressing a dangerous devotion to Christianity.

Bless you, Anonymous Sources, for conveniently providing the sound bites for the compelling "We should have known all along" narrative so preferred among the media in these situations.

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17 Responses to “HEARSAY AND CONJECTURE ARE *KINDS* OF EVIDENCE”

  1. Mario Greymist Says:

    Think about it though…

    First, we send troops into places they don't belong, to find weapons that don't exist and hunt down enemies who can't be found. Then, as the continued killing (of Iraqis, Afghans and US troops) begins to take its inevitable psychological toll on those troops, we decide they ought to get treatment. So we send them to see a doctor whose religious and cultural sympathies are bound to be with the patients' victims. And while we're at it, we train him to be an expert shot with a handgun. Over eight years, he gets to hear firsthand how innocent people are being butchered by the now guilt-ridden butchers. So now our friendly freudian has sympathy for both sides of the war. Then, just for shits and giggles, we tell him we're sending him there to see it all firsthand.

    We should have seen it coming.

  2. Desargues Says:

    IOKIYAC, Ed. A demented Christian on a killing spree only kills because he snapped. Christianity is the religion of peace, haven't you heard? Muslims, however, only kill because their wicked religion tells them to.

    Also, a Christian doesn't have to choose between his Lord and his country. America is God's shiny city on a hill, as I'm sure you know. Reagan said it, or could have said it; therefore, it must be true. It's only when liberals get elected that he may have to make such hard choices. For liberals are also wicked. Possibly more evil than even Muslims.

  3. Evan Says:

    Ed, you're exactly right about the frequency of the sentiment "I serve God before country" from Christians…and it's not just fundamentalists. Garden variety Evangelicals do it too. I frequented a Christian blog (for some reason) for about a year, and it was one of those places where the only common denominator was Christendom (and then there was me, the resident fag-nostic pisser-offer.) Over the course of that time, I was able to easily separate those who meant well (at least 70% of them) from those who were just fucked up wingnuts from hell who would easily take up arms against all the people ruining their lives (liberals, you see), if they weren't such fucking cowards. The thing is, it's actually pretty commonplace among the Evangelical set, INCLUDING those who mean well, to continually refocus themselves and each other on the idea that their master is in heaven, and that this world will pass.

    So…to sum up, yes, the idea that that quote, coming from Hasan, is really unique among religious followers only gains traction because 'Murkans hate brown Mooselins, The End.

  4. miss itchy Says:

    I just found you. So yes, now you can go about your day. You do good words. In a row and everything. I tell people (who aren't already me) about your good words. I like them. Thanks for putting them in this particular order. May I have some more, please?

    miss itchy, duo.
    melbourne aust.

  5. JohnR Says:

    It's funny – no matter how much and how well you and anyone else keeps pointing out the obvious ('obvious' to me, that is, and presumably to anyone with more than a hind-brain working), huge numbers of people just don't see it. I suppose they just won't see it. Seems to me that there's something in the Bible about that.

  6. displaced Capitalist Says:

    Dunno, I suppose that's the same logic that resulted in Cameron Todd Willingham's execution.

  7. Desargues Says:

    JohnR: "For their hearts were set to do evil…"

  8. Da Moose Says:

    If we used the same set of criteria to exam the loyalties of many jews in the US government, we'd probably find that many were not suitable for security clearances due to their loyalties to Israel which, for all intents and purposes, supersede their loyalties to the US. Did I just say that out loud?

  9. Ecks Says:

    Maybe. But with serial killers we typically get the opposite finding, where everybody says "but he seemed so normal" after the stack of body parts are found in their basements. So while it's obvious that hindsight will often distort things, and that hindsight has a big multiplier effect magnifying people's pre-existing mental filters ("them mooslims hate murka"), it isn't ALWAYS the case that they'll kick in.

    I would suggest that people's hindsight biases need some grist to work with (for most of us anyway, some have incredible powers of personal delusion). It helps a LOT for the person to have done some things that fall outside of our regular mental sets for what people are supposed to do. Being late to some meetings doesn't count. Professing loyalty to religious groups we're not entirely comfortable with does. Wearing a lot of blue sweaters in a row won't set us off, but violating every day conversational norms (say, on eye contact) would.

    Shorter: Our hindsight biases don't need very much rope to hang themselves on, but they do need at least some.

  10. Mario Greymist Says:

    There's a difference between serial and spree killers: serial killers tend to be highly intelligent and charismatic, whereas spree killers have no predispositions to such traits. Intelligent, charismatic people will convince you they are okay, even when they're not. Cult leaders use the same traits as serial killers to modestly different ends.

  11. Cartmanne Says:

    NPR was creaming all over itself today for uncovering a "DISTURBING" memo about Hasan. It seems he was a fairly incompetent doctor who required a lot of supervision and was close to flunking out of the military. What this has to do with murdering a dozen people was never explained. Only the weaksauce of "Well, we can't right just now link it to what happened, but isn't this memo DISTURBING and OMINOUS and maybe even EXPLOSIVE!?"

    I am a big fan of NPR, but this was just silly. There is another legal evidentiary concept it brings to mind. A little something us lawyers like to call "relevance." But apparently that is not in the media rule book.

  12. DocAmazing Says:

    Wasn't Major Hasan trying to get discharged?

  13. jazzbumpa Says:

    I used to be a big fan of NPR, until the Bush administration put in a Republican hack as ombudsman to assure that they didn't put forth a Librull bias. I don't think they ever recovered.

    This, however, might be hindsight bias.

    Cheers!
    JzB the retrospective trombonist

  14. Bokata Says:

    Q: Why not just call him a terrorist?
    A: Because the left's too weak kneed and chock full of PC BS to call things as they are. Those nefarious wimps would have KSM tried by Judge Judy if given half a chance. & Etc…

    To answer the question of 'why not?'…

    The officer corps in the US military is not a likely pool of candidates for membership in terrorist groups.

    If he was somehow linked to Al Queda or some faction thereof, then yes, he is/was a terrorist. On the other hand, the rationale could be: a Muslim on a killing spree is a terrorist. A non-Muslim on a killing spree, however, is either 'postal,' 'amok,' 'berserk,' or committing 'suicide by cop.' Religion here is the deciding factor. Let us define our terms and be careful about logic once and for all.

    Also, the reason Maj. Hassan was not weeded out of the service early on has little to do with with political correctness. It has everything to do with the fact that he was a doctor. The Army paid for his education and was entitled to its end of the service contract. Doctors, especially shrinks, are in short supply. Their skills are badly needed. The Medical Corps promoted doctors as a matter of gratis up through the ranks of Major and Lt. Colonel with few exceptions because of this fact. Given that Hassan was a psychiatrist in the first place, he was below the radar with regard to any warning signs that he was a serious nut-job. This goes to say that it's often hard to tell the coaches from the players in the mental health professions.

    Then again, this could be just another red herring to disguise the the fact that leftist style political correctness gave Hassan carte blanche up to and including his Jihad style last stand. The caveat here is that the US military is PC the way high schools are. Both officially embrace the highest ideals with regard to human relations. What happens in the locker room or barracks, on the other hand, is often the very antipodes of PCdome. With respect to officer promotion boards, race-creed-color have no impact on who does or doesn't make the grade. Skills do, however, play a big role in career advancement. Pilots and doctors usually get promoted by virtue of their special knowledge and so forth.

    So, if Hassan was indeed a terrorist, then he was acting on political motives. This has not yet been established.

    Just a few thoughts…

  15. g Says:

  16. Beth Says:

    I'm very glad to read about this kind of bizarre manipulation of reality. I have a neighbor who insists that Hasan must be a terrorist, and that he must be an Al Quaeda operative, even though he was born in the usa and is an american citizen, all because he is muslim and of arabic descent. I try to listen, but it is difficult.

    And Ed, don't flip out, but don't you think it is interesting that almost all of these spree killers and serial killers are male, and that no one in the MSM ever mentions that? Has male become the default for killer? Just asking.

  17. Timothy Underwood Says:

    Comment on the most recent comment, but males do kill a lot more people. And that is part of the sort of background information we all approach things with.

    The difference between the intensely Christian figure, and the intensely Muslim figure in the US military, is that the US is engaged in foreign policies which should deeply disturb people whose primary identity is Muslim, while not offending in the slightest those whose identity is a militarized form of Christianity ==> being Muslim makes someone more dangerous in this context than being Christian. At the same time going postal seems to generally involve a lot more than religious things, its profoundly abnormal, and probably a large part of the reason that his religion wasn't seen as important before he went off is that, well, he is a doctor. Not a shooter.