Spinning Ft. Hood

As we begin to gain some distance from the tragedy at Ft. Hood and take a tour of media and blog responses, three things become apparent. First, our military is clearly ignoring its mental health needs; second, many groundlessly assume that religion must have played a role in the massacre; and third, ill-conceived rhetoric can infect our military culture, with potentially disturbing results.

Mental Health Breakdown

As others have noted, on-base attacks are increasingly common, due in part to the insufficient attention given to the mental health needs of the military. Multiple tours of duty, living under constant fire, and the fear of serving under these conditions, all contribute to mental instability. They, in turn, inhibit recruiting, reduce the overall quality of recruits, and even effect the readiness of the armed forces in general. In a recent New York Times story on the topic, Army chief of staff Gen. George Casey said:

“We’ve also worked very, very hard to enhance what we’re doing to—for the mental fitness of the force,” he said on Meet the Press. He cited a “stigma reduction program” started in 2007 that “resulted in about a 40 percent increase in soldiers willing to come forward saying they have some symptoms of post-traumatic stress.”

He said that last year the suicide rate exceeded the civilian rate for the first time and as a result the Army is spending $5 million to have the National Institute of Health study the problem. More recently, he said, the Army has started a program called Comprehensive Soldier Fitness designed to give soldiers skills “to build the resilience to deal with some of the challenges that they’re facing.”

Although Maj. Nidal Hasan never served in a conflict zone, he apparently did have mental health issues. The New York Times has a lengthy piece on the psychological cost on health care providers, noting that:

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 Sept. 11 attacks, researchers found that the more deeply therapists were involved with victims, the more likely they were to experience such trauma. The same associations have been found in doctors working with survivors in war zones.

Still, “mental health evaluations of therapists themselves were virtually nonexistent.” This lack of support for caregivers stresses an already fragile system. These professionals “describe crushing schedules with 10 or more patients a day, most struggling with devastating trauma or mutilated bodies that are the product of war and the highly advanced care that kept them alive.”

Islam Responsible?

Even with all this background information readily available and a call from Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) “that we take the time to gather all the facts, as it would be irresponsible to be the source of rumors or inaccurate information regarding such a horrific event,” Maj. Hasan’s religion immediately became a dominant part of the narrative. Over at The Atlantic, Andrew Sullivan writes that:

I did not leap to that conclusion in this case as the primary reason for the attack because we didn’t fully know the entire picture—and still don’t. But as the pieces fall into place, it seems increasingly clear that Nidal Hasan’s faith—and the conflicts it presented in the context of the war on Islamist terror—was absolutely relevant in this horrifying massacre of service members.

Sullivan essentially makes two points: 1) We do not know everything about Hasan, but 2) it is becoming clear he did this because of his faith.

I fail to understand how, at this point, we can argue both that we need more information, but that it is “increasingly clear” that his faith is a meaningful issue. It’s quite possible that Hasan is mentally ill and chose to use Islam to express that illness the way a Christian may believe he’s hearing the voice of Jesus. In both cases they are turning to comfortable cultural idioms to express the confusion in their heads. No one holds Jodie Foster responsible for the violence of John Hinckley, Jr. 

Also in The Atlantic, Jeffrey Goldberg writes:

I do think that elite makers of opinion in this country try very hard to ignore the larger meaning of violent acts when they happen to be perpetrated by Muslims. Here’s a simple test: If Nidal Malik Hasan had been a devout Christian with pronounced anti-abortion views, and had he attacked, say, a Planned Parenthood office, would his religion have been considered relevant as we tried to understand the motivation and meaning of the attack? Of course.

While Hasan appears to be a Muslim he’s also a graduate of Virginia Tech, site of the deadliest peacetime attack on America by a single gunman. Since an equal number of Virginia Tech students and American-born Muslims have gone on killing sprees, Goldberg should clearly be asking to investigate Virginia Tech’s mental health support structures. Or perhaps, using Goldberg’s logic, we should investigate whether East Asian men have a propensity to mass murder, given the ethnicity both of the Virginia Tech and Binghamton shooters. Fortunately, one of Sullivan’s readers injects some sanity into the whole conversation:

The reason elite opinion makers are reticent to too strongly overplay the religion card with Nidal Hasan, in a way they maybe weren’t as reticent to do with George Tiller, is because Islam is a minority faith and many of its practitioners might well be subject to retaliatory violence in the wake of Fort Hood. To “apply the same standard of inquiry and criticism to all religions” omits the important fact that there are a great many people in this country who would NOT apply the same standard to Hasan as they applied to George Tiller. They might say that Tiller was a bad apple in an otherwise good faith, while simultaneously saying Hasan is the apple that proves the badness of the whole batch. To pretend otherwise is obvious and repugnant sophistry.

Zeenat Rehman makes a more direct observation about this sort of overdetermination in the Chicago Tribune:

Like a bad recurring nightmare, we heard of another incident. A disgruntled office worker in Orlando, Jason S. Rodriguez, went on a shooting spree in the offices he was laid off from two years ago. In the days and weeks to follow, there will be much speculation and dissection of the motives and lives of these two deeply troubled individuals, but I suspect that they will play out in very different ways.

When we discuss Jason, will we ask if he was motivated by his faith? Will we expect every Latino organization to denounce the acts of this lone individual simply because he is Latino? Will we claim that all Latinos are violent and that his actions simply affirm this fact?

Of course not. If we did, we would be called racist, bigots, and many other things.

But it need not be a solely speculative exercise. Virginia Tech shooter Seung Hui-Cho, in some materials sent to NBC, wrote: “I die like Jesus Christ.” And while there was no serious speculation on the Christian causes of his actions, some bloggers even attempted to connect that massacre to Islam as well. 

Health of the Military

This sort of exaggeration of religious identification, absent any facts, can have real world consequences on our military. Outside observers must be careful not to do anything that can further damage unit cohesion. We trust the military to protect us and we need to trust them that they know best how to preserve order in their ranks. I do not advocate the military being given carte blanche—we are a civilian democracy—but we also need to recognize that military culture is distinct from civilian culture. Language and rhetoric that we use in the political sphere, especially language that is hateful and divisive, is generally not acceptable in a military context.

It would be very easy to make assumptions about Major Nidal Hasan, what he represents, and why the military should not trust people like him. Of course, there are so many ways to define him, that essentially we are saying to the military personnel “do not trust the person next to you.” That very statement turns brother against brother and undermines the basis of an all-volunteer army. We know that this is not a matter of faith. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell, a four-star general, spoke eloquently about the sacrifice of Corporal Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan, who is representative of the nearly 4,000 active service Muslims in the Armed Forces and the dozens who have given their lives in service to this country. General Casey is deeply concerned about this misrepresentation:

“I’ve asked our Army leaders to be on the lookout for that [backlash against Muslim service members],” General Casey said in an interview on CNN’s State of the Union. “It would be a shame—as great a tragedy as this was—it would be a shame if our diversity became a casualty as well.” … “A diverse Army gives us strength,” General Casey, who visited Fort Hood Friday, said on This Week. … “The speculation [about Hasan’s motives] could heighten the backlash,” he said on This Week. “What happened at Fort Hood is a tragedy and I believe it would be a greater tragedy if diversity became a casualty here.” … Sen. [Lindsey] Graham [R – SC] said. “At the end of the day, maybe this is just about him. It’s certainly not about his religion, Islam.” He added: “To those members of the United States military who are Muslims, thank you for protecting our nation, thank you for standing up against the people who are trying to hijack your religion.”

Both Gen. Casey and Sen. Graham seem to be aware of a tradition of service of Muslim Americans that dates back to at least World War I, and based on the number of slaves who were Muslim, it would not be surprising to find Muslims fighting to preserve the Union. According to Capt. Eric Rahman, recipient of the Bronze Star for his service in Iraq, too many people forget the example of Petty Officer Michael A. Mansoor, a SEAL who won the Medal of Honor after rescuing members of his unit from a firefight in Iraq in 2006. By recognizing and participating in the richness of America’s diversity, both men understand the threat that unchecked speculation and generalizations can cause.

Speaking to the argument that fear of profiling is what allowed Hasan to go undetected in the first place, Marc Lynch (aka “Abu Aardvark”) believes this is not a question of “political correctness,” but of preserving what values define us as a nation and a people. On the Foreign Policy Web site, he writes:

This framing of the issue is almost 100% wrong. There is a connection between what these critics are calling “political correctness” and national security, but it runs in the opposite direction. The real linkage is that there is a strong security imperative to prevent the consolidation of a narrative in which America is engaged in a clash of civilizations with Islam, and instead to nurture a narrative in which al-Qaeda and its affiliates represent a marginal fringe to be jointly combatted. Fortunately, American leaders—from the Obama administration through General George Casey and top counterterrorism officials—understand this and have been acting appropriately.

Muslim-American Responses

It seems as though the Muslim-American community is clear about this point as well; they are part of the American security situation. There very well may be a backlash, but Muslim-Americans are not going to allow themselves to be cast as “not quite Americans.” They are apparently more confident, and even if others see them as outsiders, they are more worried about creating a better America. They believe they are better than what Maj. Hasan represents:

Among those attending Friday prayers at the Killeen mosque was Sgt. Fahad Kamal, 26, an Army medic who wore his Airborne uniform, and later he said he was angered on several levels. “I want to believe it was the individual, and not the religion, that made him do what he did,” said Sergeant Kamal, who returned to the United States last year after a 15-month tour in Afghanistan. “It’s an awful thing. I feel let down. We’re better than this.”

Omar Ahmad, a member of the San Carlos City Council, writes that:

Criminal acts involving murder are forbidden explicitly [in Islamic traditions]. As a community leader, and as a Muslim, I condemn these acts… Like other faith groups, Muslims are looking for ways to raise families and live the American dream. Today, the American Muslim community feels like all Americans do: outraged, betrayed, and demanding justice be served quickly.

Zeenat Rahman is even more personal:

I went to the mosque today, to observe the ritual Friday prayer. I prayed for the souls of the victims and for their families, not because the alleged perpetrator is Muslim, but because as a Muslim, that is what my religion teaches me to do.

Shahed Amanullah, on the other hand, is more angry:

Oh, the overwhelming feeling I’m hearing is anger. I mean, the Muslim community of Central Texas has many connections to both Fort Hood and the military. There are many members of the services who are in the community, who are feeling this personally, veterans and active duty personnel. And, you know, there’s relationships, real relationships with that base and with people at that base.

And so, you know, the primary feeling I’m hearing is anger, not even fear for what might happen to us as any sort of backlash. I’m hearing none of that now the way I did, say, after 9/11. Right now, it’s primarily anger that this happened and really searching for ways that the Muslim community can help.

This anger is not about the damage to the Muslim community, but the damage to America, and how can Muslims, as Americans, help repair that damage. Eboo Patel, a member of the president’s Faith-Based Advisory Council has a suggestion on how to channel that rage: “What is even more important [than condemnation] is to state clearly what Islam stands for. In Islam, as in other faiths, it is said that to take a single life is like taking all life. [cf. Qur’an 5:32]”

I would suggest that what Muslims stand for is on display every single day in this country: in our teachers, doctors, business people, friends, family, co-workers. We do not always have to make grand gestures. I am responsible for my people, but not all of them. I am an American, but I am not responsible for Tim McVeigh. I do not have to apologize to every Federal worker I meet for his actions. I am a New Yorker, but I am not responsible for the Son of Sam. I am male, but I am not responsible for David Koresh. I am a Muslim, but I am not responsible for Nidal Hasan. I am responsible to heal the damage all these people have caused. I am responsible for making sure these things do not happen.

Sarah Posner, echoing Sec. of State Powell, writes “Hasan is Muslim, So What?,while Arsalan Iftikhar offers a sympathetic point in his article  Murder has no Religion.

Eboo Patel writes that “a Muslim did not do this. Killers do not deserve the honor of a religious label. The man who killed a group of brave American soldiers deserves one name and one name only: murderer.”

Wajahat Ali pleads:

No mere factual, evidential explanation could ever justify or excuse in any way Hasan’s alleged actions. But it ought to broaden the horizon of those in the media who seem infatuated with the need to pin the blame for this perverse tragedy solely on a man’s religious faith and Arabic last name, rather than exploring the possibility of a more complicated truth involving some combination of mental state, divided loyalty, or conscientious objection.

There is still much we do not know about Hasan’s motivations. Right now, we are simply exacerbating levels of distrust in civilian society, and risk spreading that distrust to the military. What we need is clarity, and that takes time in which we can reflect. Unfortunately, there is a desire simply to act, to judge. We must resist this urge. Few lemmings are required to lead us over the cliff to hysterics and faulty judgment.

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