Wall Street Journal reporters Ryan Chittum and Joe Hagan sort through the blog posts, media reports and official statements surrounding the University of Oklahoma student who blew himself up almost two weeks ago, and they try to separate myth from fact. The story comes after CBS News blogger Vaughn Ververs joined in the chorus of bloggers asking why the mainstream media didn’t seem more interested in the story.
At the time of the bombing, I wrote that the upside to blogging was the ability to get news out quickly. I noted that the Oklahoma Daily, OU’s student newspaper, was breaking news by converting its Web story into a frequently updated blog, like the Times-Picayune did during Hurricane Katrina. But I also noted that rumors could spread quickly on blogs — in fact, rumors that several Middle Eastern men were seen running from the stadium were already circulating on some blogs the day after the bombing. The WSJ story reports that several of these rumors appear to be false:
Several facts about the case fed the speculation: Suicides committed with bombs are rare, as are those committed in public near a crowded event. Mr. Hinrichs (pronounced HIN-ricks) had a Pakistani roommate. They shared an apartment one block away from the only mosque in Norman — the same mosque attended in 2001 by Zacarias Moussaoui, who pleaded guilty earlier this year to helping plan the 9/11 terrorist attacks. In some photographs, Mr. Hinrichs can be seen with a scraggly beard.
Adding to community concern was the revelation that two days before he blew himself up, Mr. Hinrichs visited a feed store and inquired about buying ammonium nitrate — the same chemical Timothy McVeigh put in the bomb he used in 1995 to blow up the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City, 20 miles to the north. An off-duty Norman police officer, overhearing Mr. Hinrichs’s conversation in the store, ran a check on his license plate and found no cause for alarm.
To that unsettling set of facts, blogs and local Oklahoma TV stations added several apparent inaccuracies, including: that Mr. Hinrichs was a Muslim and visited the mosque frequently; that he tried to enter the stadium twice but was rebuffed; that he had a one-way airplane ticket to Algeria; that there were nails in the bomb and that Islamic extremist literature was found in his apartment.
None of these claims are true: Mr. Hinrichs’s family, university officials and the Federal Bureau of Investigation say Mr. Hinrichs suffered from depression, and the explosion was an isolated event.
I think the reporters did a good job of sorting the facts from fiction. That said, I think it’s too early to dismiss this as just a suicide caused by depression. Charles Bishop also had a history of mental problems, yet he left a note saying his actions were deliberate and expressing support for Osama bin Laden.
So far, the investigation into this case hasn’t yielded any such conclusive evidence, like a suicide note, that we know of. But it also hasn’t yielded any kind of conclusive evidence adequately explaining why Hinrichs chose to take his life in the dramatic manner that he did. We might never know. But as long as we are taking the media to task for its rampant exaggerations during Hurricane Katrina, we would do well not to make the same mistake.
Full Disclosure: I am friends with one of the WSJ reporters, Ryan Chittum. I can also report that in college he had a scraggly beard very similar to Hinrichs’, yet he is not to my knowledge an Islamic extremist, nor even Muslim. The beard looked more Amish than anything.