In the past two weeks, some of the blogs have been astir with news of an alleged string of possible jihadist terrorist attacks (update: corrected link) on U.S. soil. The main story is that of 21-year-old Joel Hinrichs, the University of Oklahoma engineering student who committed suicide on October 1 by blowing himself up within 100 yards of the campus football stadium during a game attended by 85,000 people. By October 5, the alarm was in full swing: Hinrichs had reportedly tried to purchase a large quantity of the explosive ammonium nitrate; he had allegedly converted to Islam and belonged to a mosque that may have had terrorist ties and may have been attended earlier by “20th hijacker” Zacharias Moussaoui; he may have had radical Islamic literature and a one-way airplane ticket to Algeria in his apartment; he may have attempted to enter the crowded stadium twice before he blew himself up.
As it turns out, the only truth in all this is that Hinrichs had, indeed, inquired about buying ammonium nitrate at a local store two days before his suicide, and had given evasive and suspect answers about why he needed it. Because of a tip about this attempted purchase, he had come to the attention of the FBI, which became involved in investigating the suicide. The other claims were a lot of rumor-mongering and speculation, all firmly denied by both the FBI and the university authorities and often based on laughably far-fetched “clues” (Hinrichs had a Pakistani roommate; he lived — gasp! — within a block of the mosque; he even — wait until you hear this one! — grew a beard!).
The news that the FBI was investigating the case of a man blowing himself up on a major university campus undoubtedly merited some attention. However, the reasonable bloggers quickly realized there was no “there” there. At Instapundit.com on October 6, Glenn Reynolds linked to a couple of blogposts discussing the allegedly suspicious details of the story, but later updated the post to include a link to an excellent post at Caerdroia debunking most of the claims. After that, he didn’t touch the story again, except to link to a cautious post by CBS News blogger Vaughn Ververs saying that the national media needed to look into the story.
By contrast, Michelle Malkin, Powerline, and The Jawa Report flogged the story relentlessly, picking up every sensational detail and railing against the “mainstream media” for ignoring and covering up the story. In a typical passage her October 12 syndicated column, Malkin wrote:
Nothing to see here. Move along. Islam is a peaceful religion. Stop asking so many damned questions.
Such is the attitude of the national media, which seems to believe that ’tis better to live in ignorance and indulge in hindsight later than to offend the gods of political correctness.
On October 13, The Wall Street Journal published an article debunking the alleged terrorist angle and taking the bloggers to the woodshed for spreading hysteria about the story. Some of the Journal‘s targets respond here, here, and here, trying to debunk the debunking and gamely attempting to keep the story alive. Malkin, Powerline, and The Jawa Report claim that the blogs have not made any assertions, merely asked questions. First of all, that’s a common, and rather poor, excuse for irresponsible speculation. If a prominent left-wing blog ran an item titled, “Did George W. Bush know in advance about the 9/11 attacks?”, I doubt that Malkin & Co. would consider the question mark to be much of an attenuating circumstance.
Second, some of the blogs that pushed the “jihadi terrorism in the heartland” angle on the Hinrich story went much further than merely ask questions. On October 6, for instance, The Jawa Report ran an item headlined, ” Islamic Terrorism in Oklahoma Likely.” On the same day, John Hinderaker at Powerline had this to say:
I don’t think there is any doubt that the student, Joel Henry Hinrichs, intended mass murder rather than suicide.
On October 10, Hinderaker followed up with this:
Unless you live in Oklahoma and follow the local news, or else read conservative blogs, you probably wouldn’t know anything about Joel Hinrichs, the University of Oklahoma student who almost surely tried to carry off a mass suicide-murder at an OU football game.
My friend Sharon McGovern (Cobra) thinks that the Journal article is needlessly nasty and snippy toward bloggers, and not for the first time; she says that she is especially inclined to defend blogs right now because, traveling out of the country during Hurricane Katrina, she found the blogs to be a heartening corrective to the misinformation spread by the mainstream media. Fair enough. This isn’t, or shouldn’t be, about good MSM vs. bad blogs. Certainly, there have been cases in which the mainstream media have peddled bogus news and hysteria; and certainly, there have been cases in which the MSM got it wrong and the blogs got it right (most notably “Rathergate,” a.k.a. Memogate or Typewritergate). What’s more, this is not an issue of “citizen journalists” without professional credentials: Malkin is a professional journalist. And finally, the responsibility for the hysteria over the Oklahoma “suicide bombing” does not rest entirely with the blogs: a lot of the false rumors were fanned by the local TV stations (though it’s not clear to what extent their coverage was blog-driven). At best, the mainstream media and the blogs can complement each other’s strengths, with professional journalists gathering the news and bloggers subjecting their reports to fact-checking and critical analysis. In this case, what looks like sloppy and hysterical reporting by the local mainstream media fed sloppy and hysterical coverage by blogs. And vice versa.
There is another question one might ask: When we’re in the middle of the War on Terror, isn’t it better to be too vigilant than not vigilant enough? Where’s the harm in trying to “connect the dots”?
First of all, reporting unfounded rumors is not “connecting the dots.” Equating a Pakistani roommate and an apartment in close proximity to a mosque with Islamic terrorist ties is not “connecting the dots.” It’s irresponsible speculation.
Second, the harm in crying wolf should be pretty obvious.
On one side, there will be people who will remain convinced, no matter how many times the FBI and other authorities may repeat that Joel Hinrichs was a depressed and troubled young man with no political or religious motivations, that there was something more to the story and that the powers that be are lying to them. Here are a couple of voices from the comments at The Jawa Report:
* The FBI is somewhere between the Keystone Kops and the Gestapo, and I wouldn’t trust them to catch Osama if he walked in and applied for a job and used his real name. FBI agents spend more time in classes learning to be sensitive to muslims than they do trying to crack terrorist organizations.
* The story here is the WSJ’s desire to minimize anything that may be “bad for business”. Domestic suicide bombings are bad for business, so they’ll go out of their way to discourage the airing of facts, whatever they may be. Curbing illegal immigration is also bad for business, and that’s why you’ll hear nary a word about it on the WSJ. As a right-winger sometimes I feel better about the blatant NY Times than I do about the WSJ’s stealth corporatist agenda.
On the other side, meanwhile, some are going to use incidents like these to discredit all concerns about the threat of radical Islamic terrorism in the U.S. What a perfect excuse to caricature those concerned about terrorism as Muslims-under-the-bed paranoids. (By the way, I do agree with Malkin that some degree of ethnic and religious profiling is necessary in the War on Terror; but now, I’d like to know if her criteria for profiling include having a Pakistani roommate and living near a mosque. )
There is another consideration, as well. It’s called common decency. As Caerdroia pointed out early on:
[N]o matter what else, Joe [Hindrich] has a family and friends who are very badly affected by Joe’s death. In the absence of good evidence, isn’t it a bit better to wait to pronounce from on high, so as not to unfairly smear a possible innocent and his family? Otherwise, just how are conservatives any better morally, any less conspiracy-addled freaks, than the D[emocratic] U[nderground] moonbats?
By the way, the Oklahoma suicide is not the only recent incident to be given the “jihad in America” treatment. On October 10, Smash at Indepundit made a post dramatically titled, “College Bombings?” and opening with:
What’s going on?
The Georgia Tech incident was a bottle filled with
explosive chemicals dry ice that blew up when a custodian picked it up, causing an Atlanta police official to make a rash comment about a terrorist act. The UCLA incident was the suicide of UC-San Diego student Khaled Yasufi, whose apartment was reported to have contained a “chemical lab” in the bathroom. But after the alarmist opening, Smash’s post is followed by several updates that add up to an Emily Litella-like “Never mind”: the “terrorist act” at Georgia Tech was a freshman prank, and the “chemical lab” in the San Diego apartment was an illegal drug lab.
But Smash, at least, promptly corrected the record. Malkin, who linked to Smash’s initial post, has yet to do that.
Footnote: Mark Kleiman has a post about the Journal debunking of the “suicide bombing at the University of Oklahoma” story. He makes some good points, but I think he’s unduly harsh on Glenn Reynolds for merely linking to a post by Vaughn Ververs of CBSNews.com, who wrote that the mainstream media needed to look into the story. If someone here deserves criticism, why not Ververs?
Update and correction: Another salient piece of information is that Rep. Tom Cole (R-Oklahoma) has publicly said that, according to information he has received from the FBI, there is no reason to believe that Hinrichs was planning a terrorist attack, or was anything other than a depressed young man who decided to take his own life by a highly unusual method.
Mark Tapscott writes to take issue with the fact that the opening sentence of my post, which links to one of his posts about the Hinrichs case, implies that he has written about “an alleged string of possible jihadist terrorist attacks.” In fact, he has written only about the Oklahoma case. I apologize for the confusion.
Update: In the comments, some posters (including bloggers such as patterico) have pointed to this line in the Wall Street Journal story:
In fact, authorities did find, in Mr. Hinrichs’s bedroom, additional explosive material. They detonated them at the police firing range the next day, jolting the city again.
Some suggested that the presence of additional explosives suggests that Hinrichs was, in fact, planning a terrorist act. To me, that just doesn’t add up. If he was planning a suicide bombing/mass murder, he obviously wasn’t going to use the additional explosives. And if he wanted to inflict maximum damage, why didn’t he use all the explosive materials he had to build the device he used to kill himself? On the other hand, if he was simply building a homemade bomb, it’s no great mystery that he had some explosive material left over.
One poster thought that the phrase, “jolting the city again,” was particularly telling since it implied a great quantity of explosives. I wrote to Ryan Chittum, one of the two writers of the Journal article, to inquire about this. His reply this afternoon:
As you correctly deduced, “jolted the city” was a turn of phrase. I didn’t think anyone would literally think the explosions shook the city like an earthquake. People I talked to in Norman could hear the detonations, just as they could hear the Hinrichs explosion. Any kind of explosion is by its nature loud and I don’t think you can deduce much of anything from the fact people heard it. Having attended OU and lived in Norman for several years, I know it’s a small place. The Ruf-Neks’ fire their guns during OU football games and you can hear that from all around.
Hope that helps.