In watching the coverage of the Washington Navy Yard shooting as it unfolded last Monday, I had to remind myself that most of the reports I was hearing would surely turn out to be incorrect, in some cases wildly so. And indeed this turned out to be the case. We were told, for example, that there was more than one gunman, and that one of them was armed with an AR-15 rifle. Even worse, both CBS and NBC identified the wrong man as the shooter before issuing retractions.
The first of these errors is the most understandable. In the rush to beat their competitors, the editing filters ordinarily in place are often put aside in favor of greater speed. Reports from the scene, no matter how unverifiable, are broadcast live so as to be first on the air. Again, understandable and even forgivable in most cases.
Less so is the misidentification of the shooter’s weapon. This too might be seen as understandable were it not for the obvious desire on the part of so many in the news business to demonize a particular type of firearm, the so-called “assault rifle.” The Navy Yard gunman, Aaron Alexis, was not armed with an AR-15, or with any other kind of rifle, but rather with a pump-action shotgun, one of the most commonly owned firearms in the country. This did not prevent members of the media from pressing their case for a federal ban on “assault rifles.” Just as the Sherlock Holmes short story Silver Blaze features the “curious incident” of the dog that didn’t bark, the story of the Navy Yard shooting came to be about the gun that didn’t shoot.
But most egregious of the media’s many errors at the Navy Yard was the labeling as the shooter of a man who was at home, 40 miles away, at the time of the incident. Though the mistake was caught fairly quickly and the appropriate retractions and corrections were made, it didn’t prevent other reporters from setting up camp outside the wronged man’s home. Both CBS and NBC blamed their misreporting on law enforcement sources who said that an ID card belonging to a former Navy Yard employee had been found near the dead shooter. In most cases it would have been a logical assumption that the ID card was indeed the gunman’s — but not in this one.
But the desire to be first with the news is not confined to people in the media. Police officers and federal agents, for reasons of their own, sometimes compete among themselves to deliver the latest information to reporters. And nowhere is this more true than in Washington, D.C., where many law enforcement agencies have a presence. When the shooting started at the Navy Yard last Monday morning, it brought a response from the D.C. Metropolitan Police, the Capitol Police, and the U.S. Park Police. Also, personnel from the FBI, ATF, Homeland Security, the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, and heaven knows how many other federal agencies rushed in to help. Inside each of these agencies are people who, officially or otherwise, are sources of information for the Washington press corps. Surely there are few reporters better connected with law enforcement in Washington than CBS’s John Miller, who once worked in public affairs for the FBI. Yet Miller was one of those who misidentified the shooter. Sure, it’s great having a source on the inside who can provide information no one else has, but when the information is bogus it’s not the source who ends up looking bad.
The hodgepodge of agencies that responded to the shooting was both a blessing and a curse. The flood of manpower into the Navy Yard may have served to contain the gunman to a single building, but it also made for difficulty in coordination among the personnel at the scene. Each of the agencies has its own chain of command and communications network, some of which mesh together better than others. For example, the BBC reported that a special weapons team from the Capitol Police responded to the Navy Yard within minutes of the first emergency call, but when the team contacted their watch commander for instructions, they were told to stand down rather than join the fight. The Capitol Police are investigating the matter.
It may be that lives would have been saved had the Capitol Police team engaged the gunman. Even so, the decision to order them to stand down is not necessarily indefensible. Given the location of the shooting, i.e. a military installation, it was a reasonable assumption in the early moments of the incident that a terrorist attack was taking place, and that other locations in the D.C. area may be in danger. The 2008 attacks in Mumbai, in which 166 people were killed by only ten terrorists, showed how a small contingent of trained men can inflict a heavy loss of life and bring a major city to a standstill. Police departments across the United States have adopted protocols for confronting such an attack, among which is preventing too many resources from being concentrated at the site of an initial incident. The police officer’s noble impulse to rush to the scene of trouble sometimes has to be harnessed so as to respond effectively to multiple attacks. One can scarcely imagine the devastation that might have occurred if, while most of the law enforcement assets in the D.C. area were committed to the Navy Yard, other coordinated attacks had been initiated at the Capitol, on the Mall, and at the White House. As was demonstrated in Mumbai, such a scenario is not farfetched.
We have learned from the experience at the Navy Yard, but surely so have our enemies. Yes, this time it was a lone gunman, with the usual implications for discussion of mental health and gun control, but next time it may not be. Will we be ready?