The making of a tragedy

November 9, 2009 writer Eric Ruder and Trey Kindlinger, a member of Iraq Veterans Against the War, look at the broader context in which the tragedy at Fort Hood unfolded.

PEOPLE ACROSS the U.S. and the world were shocked at the news that an Army psychiatrist went on a shooting rampage, killing 13 people and injuring dozens. Their question was why?

But as the details about the background of Major Nidal Malik Hasan trickled out, commentary about the horrific event settled into two wrong answers.

On the one hand, right-wing pundits, once they learned of Hasan's Muslim faith and Palestinian heritage, decided they had all the information they needed--and proceeded to pass judgment about what motivated not just Hasan, but all Muslims.

Debbie Schlussel, a frequent columnist for the New York Post and Jerusalem Post, urged readers of her Web site to think of Hasan "whenever you hear about how Muslims serve their country in the U.S. military."

She continued, "Well, actually, they do serve 'their country' in the U.S. military. And their country is Dar Al-Islam and greater Koranistan. It's Islamic terrorism, stupid. Wait, that's repetitive. It's Islam, stupid."

The real problem, according to syndicated columnist Michelle Malkin, is "the whitewashing of jihad by the MSM [mainstream media]. I've said it many times over the years, and it bears repeating again as cable TV talking heads ask in bewilderment how all the red flags Hasan raised could have been ignored: Political correctness is the handmaiden of terror."

The main gate at Fort Hood Army Base in Texas
The main gate at Fort Hood Army Base in Texas (Robert Hughes | UPI)

According to Fox and Friends co-host Gretchen Carlson at Fox News, even the military has succumbed to this "political correctness," prompting her to wonder, "Could it be that our own military is so politically correct right be careful about treatment of Muslims that they would have allowed this to go by?"

The other way the Fort Hood events were seen in the media was less vile, but still not very illuminating. The shooting was seen as the act of a deranged individual, an unpredictable spasm of violence caused by the mental breakdown of a medical professional who himself needed the counseling he was supposed to provide to others.

While an advance over the hate-filled tirades of conservatives, this explanation ultimately leaves the most important cause of the Fort Hood tragedy unexamined--namely, the U.S. war drive in Iraq and Afghanistan and the military's callous disregard for troops it sends abroad to kill and be killed.

HASAN JOINED the military after college out of a sense of patriotism, according to friends and relatives, who describe him as a calm and gentle person. Hasan's parents are from Palestine, and he was born in the U.S. and raised in Virginia.

What else to read

Deepa Kumar's "Islam and Islamophobia" in the International Socialist Review is an excellent dissection of the right-wing demonization of Islam.

Go to the Iraq Veterans Against the War Web site to find out more about organizing against the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and news about war resisters and other initiatives by antiwar veterans and active-duty troops.

The Citizen Soldier Web site is an excellent resource for active-duty soldiers looking for news and advice about their rights. Soldiers can also contact the GI Rights Hotline Web site, or call 877-447-4487 from the U.S., 202-483-2220 from outside the U.S., or 06223-47506 from Germany.

But after the September 11 attacks, Hasan experienced racist harassment within the military and outside it that left him feeling isolated and under siege. A bumper sticker that said "Allah is love" in Arabic was torn off Hasan's car, and the vehicle was scratched with a key while it was parked at his apartment complex in Killeen, Texas, near Fort Hood, in August.

Hasan's uncle, Rafik Ismail Hamad, who lives in the West Bank town of Al Birah, said his nephew told him that fellow soldiers once handed Hasan a diaper and told him to wear it on his head. In another incident, according to a Los Angeles Times report, they drew a camel on a piece of paper and left it on his car, with a note that read, "Here's your ride."

Despite this abuse, Hasan seemed to be coping with the situation. Hasan's uncle said his nephew told him, "They're ignorant. I'm more American than they are. I help my country more than they do. And I don't care what they say."

"He felt sorry for them," Hamad told the LA Times. "He didn't feel grudges. He felt sympathy."

As the Times report continued, "[Hamad] described his nephew as a gentle soul who once, as a young adult, mourned for three months after rolling over during a nap and crushing his pet parakeet. During medical school, his uncle said, Hasan switched his major to psychiatry after fainting at the sight of blood while delivering a baby."

But at a certain point, the stress must have begun taking a toll on Hasan. Hasan's cousin, Mohammad Munif Abdallah Hasan, who lives in Ramallah, told CNN that this was one of the reasons Hasan had sought to leave the military:

There was racism toward him because he's a Muslim, because he's an Arab, because he prays. They used to see him dress in traditional Muslim clothing, so he was a bit irritated because of this. Also, the fact that they wanted to send him to Iraq. He decided to leave the Army for good and hire a lawyer because of this matter.

They wouldn't treat him as if he is one of them. He was a major in the Army, and other majors wouldn't treat him equally as a major should be treated. Yes, you are a major in the U.S. Army, but you are still an Arab, a Muslim, you have your own traditions and values and we have ours. He was bothered by that a lot. He wasn't respected as he should have been.

ON TOP of the racist abuse, Hasan's job as an Army psychiatrist brought him face to face with countless soldiers haunted by memories of battlefield horrors--a seemingly endless line of young men and women scarred by their experiences of war. According to an excellent New York Times report:

Many of the patients who fill the day are bereft, angry, broken. Their stories are gruesome, their distress lasting, and the process of recovery exhausting. In time, the repeated stories of battle and loss can leave even the most professional therapist numb or angry. And hanging over it all, for psychiatrists and psychologists in today's military, is the prospect of their own deployment--of working under fire with combat units in Iraq and Afghanistan...

Major Hasan was one of a thin line of military therapists trying to hold off a rising tide of need. So far this year, 117 soldiers on active duty were reported to have committed suicide.

The crushing caseload--there are 408 psychiatrists for 553,000 active-duty troops around the world--leads to burnout and despair among those charged with treating the mental health trauma of a generation of soldiers. "It's a pretty damn stressful place to be," said Dr. Stephen Stahl of the conditions for psychiatrists at Fort Hood. "I think it's a horrible place to practice psychiatry."

Plus, according to the Times story:

Providing care has its own risks. In studies of therapists working to soothe mental distress in victims of violence, whether criminal, sexual or combat-related, researchers have documented what is called secondary trauma: contact distress, of a kind. In one 2004 study of social workers on cases stemming from the September 11 attacks, researchers found that the more deeply therapists were involved with victims, the more likely they were to experience such trauma.

According to Hamad, Hasan's uncle from Al Birah, Hasan told him that his caseload of physically disabled and mentally troubled war veterans was weighing heavily on him:

He didn't have time even to breathe. Too much pressure, too many patients, not enough staff. He would say, "I don't know how to treat them or what to tell them," because he didn't have enough time. They just kept coming one after the other. Sometimes he cried because of what happened to them. How young they are, what's going to happen to the rest of their lives. They're going to be handicapped; they're going to be crazy. He was very, very sensitive.

Spec. Chance Mills is an active-duty soldier at Fort Hood who personally experienced the inadequacy of the military's mental health services--in particular, the Army's Combat Stress Control Team. When preparing for deployment or already deployed, troops are seen by doctors only to send them back to their unit so they can continue fighting, according to Mills.

"It was just there to check a box [on a form]," Mills said in an interview. "It was an assembly line, following the steps. It was a [false] remedy to the problem, so they could send people back. There was no resolution of anyone's problems."

Cindy Thomas runs the Under the Hood Café, an antiwar, pro-troop hangout for soldiers at Fort Hood. As she described it:

In general, those with mental health issues are treated so horribly it's a wonder that more don't snap. It's to where even officers have issues with PTSD, feeling depression and pressure. It's harder for those who deploy--they're not stable. With pressure, they are snapping harder and quicker. But the everyday pressures of going to work and seeking mental help is causing PTSD even within those who don't deploy.

IN RECENT years, Hasan became more vocal about his opposition to the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

That hardly distinguished him from many tens of thousands of troops who witnessed firsthand the futility and brutality of the U.S. war on those countries. Nevertheless, mainstream media outlets reported on Hasan's opposition as if it were somehow inappropriate or misguided to have such thoughts.

Dr. Val Finnell, a former medical school classmate of Hasan's, described Hasan as "a very outspoken opponent of the war" in the classroom and in public settings. "He equated the war against terror with a war against Islam," said Finnell. Finnell explained that he was "shocked" by the shooting, but "that said, given the things that Major Hasan has said to me in the past and to other people, I am not surprised."

But how farfetched is it to believe that the U.S. "war on terror" is at least partly a "war on Islam"?

Consider the words of Gen. William Boykin, who said in 2003 of the U.S. pursuit of Somali warlord Osman Atto: "He went on CNN, and he laughed at us, and he said, 'They'll never get me because Allah will protect me. Allah will protect me.' Well, you know what? I knew that my God was bigger than his. I knew that my God was a real God, and his was an idol."

In September 2009, Boykin declared, "There is no greater threat to America than Islam."

It's impossible to know how many times Hasan counseled soldiers who had just told him stories of killing innocent women and children in the streets of Baghdad or the mountains of Afghanistan.

But it's certainly plausible that hearing such stories--told to him by young men and women practically young enough to be his children--could have produced a confusing tangle of emotions: Feeling himself to be an American patriot, while empathizing as a Muslim and a man of Palestinian descent with the Iraqi and Afghan victims of the U.S. military. It could also have left Hasan with an unbearable mix of anger and desperation.

The grief at Fort Hood over the carnage Hasan left is very real. But it's important to remember that for millions of people throughout the world, there is grief at the carnage that the U.S. military causes day in and day out--the bombing of Afghan wedding parties that leave dozens dead on what should have been one of the happiest days for their families; the gunning down of whole families at checkpoints in Falluja and Baghdad and Basra.

Hasan may have pulled the trigger, but it was the U.S. military that loaded the gun--with its killing fields around the world, its callous disregard for the troops it sends into battle and its neglect of the mental health professionals who are supposed to help soldiers survive their mental scars.

The bigoted conclusions of the Michelle Malkins--that the "violent teachings" of Islam caused this tragedy--must be rejected. When Sgt. John Russell shot and killed five fellow soldiers at the Camp Liberty combat stress clinic in Baghdad, his religion wasn't used to explain why he went on a shooting spree. Hasan's shouldn't be used as an explanation for what happened at Fort Hood.

The real solution to the horror that took place at Fort Hood is to build a social movement large enough to bring the senseless and ultimately futile wars in Iraq and Afghanistan--with their trail of civilian and military casualties--to an end.

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