I am always amazed (and I must confess, intimidated) by the quality of journalistic work that true professionals are able to do on deadline.
Of course, the Washington Post had a totally unfair advantage on other national-market newspapers when the story broke at Ford Hood. While Sunbelt newspapers were closer to the action on the ground (and some did not use that location to much advantage), the Post was able to turn its attention to the people who had the best first-hand information on the background of the alleged gunman.
Why? That's the lede of the stunning early profile that the Post team turned out and had online last night -- repeat, last night -- while many other news outlets were struggling to make any attempt to cover the painful roles that religion and prejudice appear to have played in this tragedy. Here is how Mary Pat Flaherty, William Wan and Christian Davenport opened the piece:
He prayed every day at the Muslim Community Center in Silver Spring, a devout Muslim who, despite asking to be discharged from the U.S. Army, according to his aunt, was on the eve of his first deployment to war. Yesterday, authorities said Maj. Nidal M. Hasan, a 39-year-old Arlington-born psychiatrist, shot and killed at least 12 people at Fort Hood, Tex.
In an interview, his aunt, Noel Hasan of Falls Church, said he had endured name-calling and harassment about his Muslim faith for years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and had sought for several years to be discharged from the military.
"I know what that is like; I have experienced it myself while working as a bank executive," she said. "Some people can take it, and some cannot. He had listened to all of that, and he wanted out of the military and they would not let him leave even after he offered to repay" for his medical training.
An Army spokesman, George Wright, said he could not confirm the report of any request to be discharged.
As authorities scrambled to figure out what happened at Fort Hood, a hazy and contradictory picture emerged of a man who received all of his medical training from the military and spent all of his career in the Army, yet turned so violently against his own. Hasan spent much of his professional career at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in the District caring for the victims of trauma, yet he spoke openly of his deep opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
He steered clear of female colleagues and, despite devout religious practices, listed himself in Army records as having no religious preference, co-workers said.
There are many, many unanswered questions and paradoxes -- of course. The Post explored as many as possible on deadline.
The goal was to seek a balance between two sets of facts that had to be kept in tension, namely the allegations of bias against Hasan (can anyone doubt that this was a reality) and the evidence that many of his problems in the military were rooted in his convictions that it was wrong for the American military to be engaged in wars against Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan, beliefs that led to conflicts in the ranks of soldiers around him.
Earlier today, the Associated Press moved an update with a vivid image that may or may not link the faith element to the heart of the story:
Soldiers who witnessed the shooting rampage at Fort Hood that left 13 people dead reported that the gunman shouted "Allahu Akbar!" -- an Arabic phrase for "God is great!" -- before opening fire, the base commander said Friday.
Lt. Gen. Robert Cone said officials had not yet confirmed that the suspected shooter, Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, made the comment before the rampage Thursday.
Quite frankly, I have been teaching all morning and have not caught up with the flood of coverage in the past few hours. However, I do have many questions, primarily based on the excellent Post mini-profile and other major reports at dawn.
* Is it true that Hasan had taken special classes to fine-tune his skills with small arms? How does that mesh with his statements to his family about his reluctance, as a psychiatrist, to have any connection with combat or fighting?
* Has anyone seen a description of how Hasan was dressed at the time of the attack? Authorities will pursue any links between the alleged gunman and his victims or words that he spoke to them as the attack began. Was this totally random?
* Of course, investigators will pursue any potential ties between Hasan and terrorists groups. A key question: Had he in fact sought a discharge? Why would someone whose long-range goal was terrorism (the allegations lurking behind those small-arms classes) make strong efforts (described by family members) to leave the military?
* We are going to end up with a timeline of people testifying to two realities that must be kept in balance. One reality is the claims that Army personnel were biased against Hasan because of his Islamic faith. At the same time, we will need to know when he began expressing his controversial beliefs about the U.S. military role in the Middle East.
How much of the conflict around Hasan was based on prejudice and how much was rooted in arguments about how his beliefs were affecting his role in the military? For example, there are clashing reports about negative critiques of his work. What about those emails that he allegedly sent praising suicide bombers? There are many questions to be answered here.
Once again, the Post showed its readers that religious questions would continue to rise to the top of the list. There are paradoxes stacked atop other paradoxes:
Hasan attended the Muslim Community Center in Silver Spring and was "very devout," according to Faizul Khan, a former imam at the center. Khan said Hasan attended prayers at least once a day, seven days a week, often in his Army fatigues.
Khan also said Hasan applied to an annual matrimonial seminar that matches Muslims looking for spouses. "I don't think he ever had a match, because he had too many conditions," Khan said. "We never got into details of worldly affairs or politics," the former imam said of his conversations with Hasan. "Mostly religious questions. But there was nothing extremist in his questions. He never showed any frustration. ... He never showed any ... wish for vengeance on anybody."
It is going to take a long time to assemble a final timeline for the events that led up to the massacre at Fort Hood, if, in fact, it is possible to accomplish that task. However, the team at the Post did an amazing job of starting that journey -- on deadline.