The nation’s worst peacetime military massacre was perpetrated by a deeply troubled army psychiatrist and devout Muslim. The motives for the crime are a jumble of the personal, psychological, professional, religious and sectarian. As is rarely the case in these circumstances, much is grey, and little is black and white except the huge burden of suffering Maj. Nidal Hassan inflicted on the victims and their families.
Though Maj. Hassan’s family emigrated to the U.S. from Ramallah in the 1960s it does not appear, at least at first glance, that the Arab-Israeli conflict was one of his primary grievances. He had other things troubling him more. First, sharing the searing pain of his patients who were veterans of the Afghan and Iraq wars. Second, his own imminent deployment to the war zone and all the existential fears this must have invoked. Third, his escalating opposition to those two wars on the soil of Muslim nations. Fourth, his conviction that his religion was disrespected in the military ranks.
Let’s be clear. I’m not excusing or defending in any way Hassan’s killing spree. He certainly deserves punishment if found guilty after a fair trial. But I’m not one of those who believes that anything is gained by refusing to examine why things happen and what people think who do bad things. Only by exploring the dark recesses may we ameliorate conditions for the most troubled, so they don’t feel the need to explode and take their anguish out on the rest of us.
The N.Y. Times’ coverage of this incident earns high marks because it is not focussing only on the superficial facts of the case. The newspaper is delving deeply into root causes and mental health conditions among military personnel. For example, I had no idea there are only 400 psychiatrists for 500,000 active duty troops and that patients seeking help can wait as long as a year for an appointment with a psychiatrist. Also, these vastly overburdened professionals have no organized support system to help them with their own problems brought on by their responsibilities. They are left on their own when it comes to taking care of their own mental health.
Again, though I’m not excusing Hassan’s actions, I’m troubled that he felt trapped by his commitment to serve the army in return for its financing of his medical education. His family says (and I have no way of verifying whether this is true or not) that he tried to discuss this with the army and his requests to end his enlistment were turned down. I understand why the army might not readily wish to allow officers in whom they’ve invested a great deal of time, energy and money to leave the armed services. But by not providing a clearer path for those in Hassan’s circumstances, they led him to feel trapped.
At least part of Hassan’s motivations appear to be mixed up in a sense of religious rage against the Afghan and Iraq wars and America’s role in them. As he grew more and more devout, he appears to have adopted at least some of the rationale of Islamists critical of U.S. Middle East policy. There are many on the right who undoubtedly are attempting to link this crime with Al Qaeda. But it’s more complicated than that. This was a homegrown crime by an American Muslim. It was not a 9/11 act of terror perpetrated by Islamists schooled in Pakistani training camps. Nidal Hassan was born and raised here. His parents struggled and worked themselves up by their own bootstraps in the classic immigrant tradition of the American dream. Once Hassan lost his parents, he appears to have lost some of his bearings, which he attempted to replace by embracing devout Islam. Unfortunately, it led him to this dead end.
We should be clear that this is not the fault of Islam. It is the fault of a man who searched for answers in Islam and found rage and violence. It is the man who is imperfect and not the religion. The man chose violence not the religion. Those who wish to argue that Islam in particular is a religion of violence must also come to terms with the violence in most of the world’s major religions. Because Jewish settler terrorists commit mass murder against Palestinians and even their fellow Jews, do we say it is the Jewish religion that is at fault?
As Pres. Obama contemplates our future troop commitments to Afghanistan, I believe that this crime, no matter how inexcusable, is a warning sign of the price we and our soldiers are paying as a nation. It is too high a price. Afghanistan is a country steeped in corruption, malfeasance and unresolved ethnic and religious conflict. I don’t see our presence there as conducive to resolving any of that country’s festering decades-old problems. And for every Hassan, there are 50 other deeply wounded GIs who may not make us pay a similar price, but whose pain and suffering is no less. Do we really want to send more of our boys there and suffer the pain of the Hassans and his patients?
Thankfully, army commander Gen. George Casey has expressed concern for the impact that this act could have on the 2,000 Arab-Americans serving in the armed forces. He understands that not only do these Americans have the right to serve their country, but they can serve it in unique ways through their linguistic and cultural experiences as American Muslims. Criminalizing all for the crime of a deranged individual does our nation (and Muslims) a deep disservice.
This is precisely what is happening at Ft. Hood and elsewhere in certain cases. Mikey Weinstein, a retired officer and activist for religious freedom in the military, forwards this communication from the wife of an American Muslim serving in the military:
…I wanted to let you know what life has been like for myself, being an American-Muslim military spouse, over the last few days here at (military installation withheld), since the Ft. Hood incident. When I first learned of this, I was sitting in the PX food court with my best friend whose immediate reaction was, “ No offense to you, but Muslims shouldn’t even be allowed in the U.S. Army”. Wow, this was from my best friend here! I have heard this and similar sentiments repeatedly from various “friends”, as well as people insisting it’s really a terror plot.
Since this happening, my Muslim husband, who is deployed to Afghanistan, has been put on duty to build a chapel on his base, as well as being told not to associate with the Afghan nationals that work there. I went shopping at the commissary and had people mumbling under their breath but loud enough to ensure that I could hear, things like, “get out of our country”, “go back to your country”, “ F-ing Muslims”, “G-Damn Muslims,” and several other expletives you can insert there. Now people don’t just stare at you when they see you go by wearing hijab, they glare. Last time I checked, I was born in this country, this is my country, and my husband is serving it and continues to serve it despite the harassment and racism he encounters. He proudly serves despite the fact that our family pays a higher price for it than many others.
Silverstein has published Tikun Olam since 2003, It exposes the secrets of the Israeli national security state. He lives in Seattle, but his heart is in the east. He publishes regularly at Middle East Eye, the New Arab, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Nation, Truthout and other outlets.