A few weeks ago, we warned against an increasingly prevalent narrative in news: That war Veterans are violent, unstable, and dangerous. I explained why that simply isn’t the case, and how those aspersions can hurt Vets and deepen the divide between us and civilians.
Thursday, the national media moved a step closer to establishing this unfortunate characterization as conventional wisdom in the newsroom. USA Today, a national newspaper second to only the Wall Street Journal in distribution, published a story with a headline brimming with violent imagery:
Police get help with vets who are ticking bombs
In an age where millions of people get news from sources like Twitter, or simply glance at newspaper ledes during morning coffee, headlines often inform readers what they need to know. In this case, it’s that police officers need reinforcement in a growing battle with “ticking bomb” Veterans. It doesn’t matter that the program might be useful in helping law enforcement recognize issues facing some folks after returning from combat. The headline paints the story of Veterans—any Vet, really—as a ticking bomb, primed to explode.
USA TODAY publishes stories on Veterans issues all the time—and typically they’re balanced and informative. On the same day this article ran, they published a story on the status of homeless Veterans. We could be talking about that story, but unfortunately, we have to refute that Vets are violent, unstable psychos.
From the article:
“We just can’t use the blazing-guns approach anymore when dealing with disturbed individuals who are highly trained in all kinds of tactical operations, including guerrilla warfare,” said Dennis Cusick, executive director of the Upper Midwest Community Policing Institute. “That goes beyond the experience of SWAT teams.”
That brings up important questions: Who are the disturbed individuals and how prevalent are they? Is this threat common enough to justify such a response? USA TODAY continues:
There is no data that specifically tracks police confrontations with suspects currently or formerly associated with the military.
This is an issue. After noting the perceived problem, the reporter acknowledges that data on the topic is sparse—or non-existent.
But an Army report issued this year found that violent felonies in the service were up 1% while non-violent felonies increased 11% between 2010 and 2011.
During that time, however, crime in much of the nation declined.
While understanding the relation to crime dropping “in much of the nation,” the significance of a one percent increase in service-related violent felonies in the last year seems unclear.
Ultimately, the story hinges on bizarre statistical framing. The reporter acknowledges that the kind of data used to make a claim about military-wide increases in violent crime does not exist. Instead, we are presented with a minor uptick in violence—which may or may not be indicative a large or even growing problem.
USA TODAY continues by highlighting the story of a single incident in Fayetteville, North Carolina in which a Veteran exchanged gunfire with local police. Coupled with two recent news reports out of Washington State and Los Angeles, a shallow conclusion could be that this represents the trend of “ticking bomb” Veterans. But isolated cases do not a trend make. And while it’s easy to make that presumptive connection, it’s irresponsible to do so without hard evidence.
Darrel Stephens, executive director of the Major Cities (Police) Chiefs Association, said the type of training proposed by the Justice Department represents “one piece of the challenge” in dealing with an increasing number of mentally ill suspects.
Again, we have the assertion of “an increasing number of mentally ill” Veteran suspects, but no empirical data to back that up. (And now others have begun to take note. Ron Capps, a contributor to TIME’s Battleland, called the headline “absurd.”)
The ticking bomb metaphor, as inflammatory and unacceptable as it was, is a perfect term for this perception of an “increasing number of mentally ill suspects.” The melodramatic language conveys a surprising and violent event. A bomb is bad enough, but a ticking bomb? You never know when a ticking bomb will go off; that’s what’s so heinous, so destructive about it. You may not even now there’s a bomb at all. The only thing you do know is that it will explode at some point. The reader of this story, then—given a story so devoid of context and facts and appropriate measurements and statistics—is left to conclude all Veterans are walking powder kegs. They have always ticked, and it’s only a matter of time before an explosion.
If Veterans are ticking bombs, we at least owe it to them to provide non-anecdotal evidence before making such an accusation. And in this case, USA TODAY failed to do that.