Who Exactly Is Harmed When People Speculate After a Terrible Event?

by Jim Geraghty

From the Tuesday edition of the Morning Jolt:

Who Exactly Is Harmed When People Speculate After a Terrible Event?

Quite a few times Monday, various scolds on Twitter told us not to speculate about the motivation behind the abominable mass shooting in Las Vegas.

And in the realm of journalism, discussing an unproven theory on camera or in print is… well, bad journalism, because it can easily be misconstrued as reported fact. It assumes facts not in evidence, jumps to conclusions, and can point the finger of blame in a particular direction that could very well be the wrong one.

And yet… when human beings are confronted with something shocking, horrifying, and not easily explained, they speculate. They search for answers based upon what little they know. When the talking heads and experts finish not speculating on camera, they speculate too, floating theories, attempting to examine the few clues and details we know and arrange a narrative that explains them. This is one of those times where the role of social media like Twitter in the realm of journalism isn’t quite clear. Does a Tweet from a journalist count as a publication, with all of the weight and responsibility that suggests? Or is it the equivalent of off-the-cuff water-cooler talk? If a journalist says, “I think the shooter did it because X,” is that dangerous baseless speculation, or is it just saying what he thinks?

A few folks flipped out about David French’s Corner post from yesterday, accusing David of feeding conspiracy theories. All he did was point out that based upon what we know of past mass shootings, the Las Vegas shooter is quite incongruous. While many mass shooters use more than one firearm, this shooter had 23 guns (!) in his hotel room.

The shooter’s brother described the shooter as “not an avid gun guy at all”; perhaps that comment is best explained as the siblings simply not knowing each other well or shock. Still, no one else noticed anything odd about the aspiring mass-murderer in the weeks and days leading to the attack? He left no manifesto, no screed, no litany of grievances?

The killer has no criminal record, and no known mental-health record. As far as we know, no one who knew him saw this coming.

Even more bizarrely, this wasn’t just a sudden burst of rage. Add up the purchase price of the guns, the ammunition, and the cost of the hotel room and you have a sizable sum of money. His brother described him as a multi-millionaire.

The selection of the hotel room provided the shooter with a small, locked, secure location overlooking a large crowd, a location where return fire from the ground was impossible or impossibly dangerous. Yesterday I rubbed some people the wrong way with this observation, so I’ll try to articulate it more clearly now: At this time, the authorities have no evidence that this shooter was connected to any terror group. But this is precisely the sort of thing a terror group would like to do, and we should be on alert for attempts to copy these methods. (How many hotels overlook large gathering spaces like parks, plazas, public squares, stadiums?)

This was no spree; this was a meticulously planned monstrous crime.  And now since David’s post, we’ve learned that the shooter had ammonium nitrate in his car, a substance that can be used to build a bomb.

Returning to the maligned notion of speculation… what exactly are we worried about here? That we’ll smear the name of a mass murderer? That public speculation will lead the police authorities in the wrong direction? Come on, give the authorities credit. The Las Vegas police and FBI are professionals, they’re not going to refocus their investigation on a theory just because it’s popular on social media.

Could speculation inadvertently feed into false rumors and conspiracy theories that flourish after an event like this? Perhaps, and no honorable American should be spreading around nonsense and lies designed to make people more fearful and suspicious of their fellow citizens. That’s Russia’s job. But even there, the problem stems from believing the speculative theory in the face of contrary evidence, not with speculation itself.

Author Thomas Wictor examines what is known about the shooter’s father, an infamous bank robber once on the FBI’s Most Wanted list, and points out some other oddities in the details of the shooter’s life, at least as currently reported.  The shooter allegedly had multiple residences, moved frequently and with little warning, consistent gambling winnings to finance a luxurious lifestyle, took very few photographs (when was the last time you saw the news media use a photo of a person with his eyes closed?) and a large personal arsenal of guns. The shooter may not have had a criminal record, but in light of all this… how certain can we be this is the first time he committed a violent crime?

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