On Wednesday afternoon, MSNBC asked Clint Van Zandt to jump on live television and do what he’s been doing with alarming frequency in recent months -- analyze a mass shooting in America. He quickly put on a coat and tie and sat in front of the high-definition camera in his home office in Fredericksburg, Virginia, which the network installed so he could quickly address chaotic scenes like the one unfolding in San Bernardino, California.
At that point, no one knew much of anything about the shooting, from the number of suspects or fatalities to whether the violence had even stopped. Over jarring images of a makeshift triage center, Van Zandt began speaking broadly about the country's spate of mass shootings, which he said were “coming now multiple times in a week.”
All of which makes Van Zandt a busy man. Five days earlier, in fact, he had appeared on MSNBC during an active shooter situation at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, Colorado. In October, he joined MSNBC’s coverage of the Umpqua Community College shooting in Roseburg, Oregon. He provided analysis the morning after the June church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, speaking to "Today" co-host Matt Lauer as the killer remained at large.
“There’s been so many mass shootings that I’ve had to talk about this year, I can’t remember them,” Van Zandt told The Huffington Post. “You give me a date and a time and I’ll say, 'Gee, I don’t remember.' Well, two, three, four, five, 10 years ago, I would’ve remembered. But today, the number is just too great.”
It's an odd, dark niche he occupies in the news universe. When TV networks shift into breaking coverage of a mass shooting, there’s often little actual news to report. It’s why producers turn to seasoned TV analysts like Van Zandt, a former FBI profiler and chief hostage negotiator who now runs a threat assessment company. He can fill airtime when details are scarce and provide informed analysis as they emerge.
At the same time, he'd rather not have to go on TV at all. His ubiquitous presence of late on NBC and MSNBC is a grim reminder of the mass shooting epidemic in America, where more than 1,044 of such events have occurred since a gunman killed 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December 2012.
Before becoming a talking head, Van Zandt spent 25 years issuing “no comments” to the media. His job was to work investigations, not assess them in real time. He recalled seeing TV commentators back then with “no idea what we’re involved in.” But shortly after retiring from the FBI in 1995, he became the guy on TV discussing someone else's investigation.
In December of that year, a Chicago lawyer hired Van Zandt to compare letters that one of her clients had received to the “Unabomber” manifesto that had been published weeks earlier in The Washington Post. The client turned out to be David Kaczynski, who rightly suspected that his brother Ted was the bomber evading law enforcement over 18 years. When authorities captured Kaczynski in April 1996, the media needed someone on air to talk about it.
Van Zandt fit the bill, given his knowledge of the case, his newly gained freedom to speak publicly, and his proximity to Washington D.C. (which wouldn't be a factor now, given his office studio setup and the availability of Skype). In June 1996, The New Yorker profiled Van Zandt and his work in the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit emphasizing the importance of negotiations, a strategy that gained more traction after the deadly raids in Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and Waco, Texas.
An unlikely media star was born.
“Investigators investigate and television experts speculate,” Van Zandt said Thursday by phone, in between MSNBC and CNBC hits on the still-emerging profiles of the San Bernardino shooters. Van Zandt said that he spent too many years as an investigator “to engage in a whole lot of speculation,” but he draws on that past experience when analyzing current events.
“If something looks like a duck and walks like a duck, I can usually make that call of what kind of an animal it is,” he said.
TV producers crave certainty, even in the most uncertain situations. Successful TV pundits don't have to be the best experts available, but they are often skilled at wrapping up a segment with a pithy, declarative statement or an unequivocal prediction rather than getting into mushy nuance.
“We see shootings anywhere, from schools to churches to, obviously, what we saw yesterday,” Van Zandt said on Thursday of the attack at the Inland Regional Center that left 14 dead and 21 wounded. “So it’s really starting to run the gamut. And each time, of course, the question is, ‘Well, you’re a profiler, explain the unexplainable. Tell us in 10 words or less, because we only have 10 seconds. Explain to us this abhorrent behavior that none of us can really understand, but we want you to put it in perspective so we can understand it.’”
Van Zandt is aware of TV outlets' expectations in the heat of breaking news, but said he tries to be cautious. His goal, he said, is "to try to not give an answer before the question is even posed, and yet give something."
“I realize the position of Americans. I’m in the same position. We want to know,” he continued. “So it’s trying to provide kind of a framework of information, knowledge and experience that would help people to understand what’s going on, try to reassure the people that the investigators -- in this case, the FBI, the local police -- are doing a good job. The help that they always need from the public is someone providing information without contaminating that investigation.”
During last week’s Planned Parenthood standoff, Van Zandt said someone mentioned on TV that law enforcement could tap into the clinic’s camera system to view what was happening inside. “That’s crazy to give up information like that,” he said.
Van Zandt said he speaks on camera as if the perpetrator is watching live with “a gun to somebody’s head" -- a situation he's familiar with from his past life as a hostage negotiator. "Should they hear my voice, they’re not going to hear something that’s going to provoke them, but hopefully they’re going to hear me say something that will suggest safety is on the other side,” he said.
While Van Zandt said he tries not to wade into the inevitable cultural or political debates surrounding mass shootings, it's perhaps inevitable that even fairly benign analysis could be interpreted by some as taking a position on hot-button issues like gun control or terrorism. He's received plenty of hate mail over the years and deleted his Twitter account as a result of negative feedback.
Though viewers may be seeking an outright declaration that an event does or doesn't qualify as "terrorism," Van Zandt said he's reluctant to make that call before investigators. “I can only say there are a significant number of parallels to what we’ve seen and organized terrorist attacks in the past,” he said.
He's seen a lot of violence in 45 years as an FBI agent and TV analyst, not to mention earlier, during his tour in Vietnam. But sadly, he doesn't believe he's seen everything. “I hate to say there’s nothing new under the Sun, but I also know that any time I think I’ve seen the worst I’m going to see of human behavior, somebody steps up and tops that," he said.
Van Zandt said members of law enforcement and the media “have to put your emotions in your back pocket" in order to survey such bloody episodes, yet he recalled one time he couldn't. In 2007, NBC sent him to the campus of Virginia Tech after the killing of 32 people. While immersed in the tragedy, working a 12 to 14-hour day, Van Zandt recalled seeing three students run towards each other, appearing to recognize for the first time that their friends had survived the rampage.
“I was trying to convey that on television one night, what I had seen, and the emotion in it, and what it represented,” he said. “I think I was crying on television."
Also on HuffPost: