The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Crazy for Allah

The Fort Hood Shooter Was a Psychotic, Then a Jihadist; Why Can’t He Be Both?

Veteran’s Day is always a solemn occasion but the sense of loss it entails was particularly keen for this year’s observance, given the recent events at Fort Hood. Major Nidal Hasan, an American of Arab/Islamic descent, killed thirteen people there and wounded over thirty more in a shooting spree. Who Hasan was has almost overshadowed the horror of what he did, particularly following revelations about what the government knew/suspected about him.

At first, officials downplayed Hasan’s background, characterizing the shootings as an assault by an unstable individual, acting alone, rather than an act of terrorism. Hasan’s shipment to Afghanistan for a tour of duty was imminent and authorities presumed this triggered a violent response. The term most often applied to the shootings in the early hours of reporting was “outburst.”

Then other disturbing aspects about Hasan started coming to light.

Prior to his deployment at Fort Hood, Hasan once gave a controversial briefing to his fellow doctors, in which he concluded, “It's getting harder and harder for Muslims in the service to morally justify being in a military that seems constantly engaged against fellow Muslims” and recommended Muslim soldiers be given the option of being released from the military as conscientious objectors.

Hasan regularly attended the Dar al-Hijrah Islamic Center, a mosque in Falls Church Virginia once led by radical Islamic cleric Anwar Al-Awlaki. Investigators supposedly found emails to al-Qaida on Hasan’s confiscated computer, although it was unclear if the terrorist group ever contacted him back. In any case, investigators say Hasan first came to their attention at least six months ago because of Internet postings believed attributable to him that discussed suicide bombings and other threats.

Several witness claimed they heard Hasan shout out, “Allahu Akbar” or “God is great,” a traditional Islamic blessing during the shooting spree.

All this has left some characterizing the shootings as the largest single terrorist attack in America since September 11. These proponents fume that a misplaced desire for political correctness purposely caused the Army to disregard a dangerous Islamic jihadist and the mainstream media initially to downplay his Arab/Muslim background.

Walid Phares, a Senior Fellow at the hawkish Foundation for Defense of Democracies, maintains in an op/ed piece for the FOXNews website, “What happened at Fort Hood is about the radicalization of individuals by an extremist ideology – jihadism – which fuels acts of terror. The main question we should be asking is when did Hasan become radicalized and who indoctrinated him?”

Personally, I fail to see the need to dichotomize Hasan in this manner. Why must he be either a psychotic or a jihadist? Why can’t he be both?

Hasan was born in this country by parents of Palestinian descent, who immigrated to the United States from a city in the West Bank, where his grandfather still lives. After high school, he joined the U.S. military. This was against the wishes of his parents, according to some sources. Whether this caused estrangement between Hasan and his family or whether they eventually reconciled is not clear. However, friends and acquaintances note he became demonstrably more religious after his parents died a decade ago.

While in the Army, Hasan earned a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry from Virginia Tech. He went on to medical school at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, from which he earned his M.D. degree. Hasan then served a residency in psychiatry at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, including a fellowship in Disaster and Preventive Psychiatry at the Center for Traumatic Stress.

Hasan spent years at Walter Reed counseling soldiers who had fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, now suffering from debilitating physical wounds as well as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and other severe mental problems. The Army promoted Hasan from Captain to Major in May 2009. Yet before his transfer to Fort Hood in July, Hasan received a poor performance evaluation for reasons that remain confidential. He received received counseling and extra supervision while an intern.

According to his cousin, Hasan’s army colleagues sometimes harassed him because of his Middle Eastern ethnicity. In his short time at Fort Hood, somebody vandalized Hasan’s car with a key for about $1000 in damage. Police eventually charged another soldier, known to disapprove of Hasan’s religion, for the incident.

None of this even remotely suggests that Hasan is somehow an innocent victim, driven to violence by the prejudice of his fellow soldiers. However, he is arch-typical of the sort of person that Islamic extremists seek out as prime recruits – a middle-class, well-educated young adult, the child or grandchild of immigrants, living in a Western country. The offspring of two cultures, Hasan felt neither accepted by nor fully part of either. Did Hasan undergo radicalization by some terrorist cell, as Phares and others suggest, or did his psychosis lead him to radicalize himself?

Exactly why Hasan felt some call back to his Arab/Islamic roots is unclear but he certainly gave ample warning signs of his growing inability to reconcile his Muslim heritage with his role as a U.S. soldier. If any part of the federal government knew about these warning signs and failed to act upon them, heads deserve to roll.

The military’s sudden transfer of Hasan to Fort Hood seems strange. It is hard to escape the feeling that an officer, exhibiting disturbing signs of mental instability, instead of being properly treated and perhaps even removed from duty, was quickly shuffled off to become someone else’s problem. Dozens at Fort Hood may have paid a high price, and some the ultimate price, because the military was unwilling to admit a young Muslim American of great promise had turned out to be a poor soldier or were simply unwilling to deal with the administrative nightmare of firing a doctor.

Perhaps Hasan joined the military as a covert means to act against America and strike a blow at it from within. More consistent with the facts, however, is the idea that he joined the Army in a burst of patriotic fervor for his family’s adopted country. The nature of his job within the military and the stress it entailed, as well as his own lack of an internal support system and coping mechanisms, may have slowly but surely caused him to turn to Islamic conservatism and finally extremism.

Hasan was a complicated person. His Islamic heritage certainly came to play a central role in his psychosis but was not necessarily the seed of it. The current imam at the Dar al-Hijrah Islamic Center said he met with Hasan, apparently a lifelong bachelor, several times last year in an unsuccessful attempt to help him find a Muslim wife. In contrast, Hasan visited a strip club not far from Fort Hood at least three times within the last month, staying for more than six hours each visit, according to the club’s manager.

“It is common to mass shooters who have a sexual-romantic incompetence to redirect their masculinity through spectacular acts of destruction,” according to Doctor Michael Welner, chairman of The Forensic Panel in New York.

While political correctness, to the extent it interfered with identifying Hasan as troubled, is wrong and must be avoided in the future, so a witch hunt directed against all Muslim soldiers as ticking time bombs is equally mistaken.

Dan Ross, an elderly Christian man from Lehigh Acres Florida, attracted the attention of the FBI after he attempted to send a dozen yellow roses to Hasan. “It is the Christian commandment to love your enemies and to do good to them. I did that,” explained Ross. Interestingly, the florist who received the order, also a Christian, refused to fill it, arguing such an act went beyond compassion and suggested admiration.

It only goes to show that two Christians can have very different views on religious dogma and its application to “real life.” Likewise, Hasan was a soldier and a Muslim who descended into madness and committed an act of mass terror. Nonetheless, this does not mean we can presuppose his possibly insane actions as typical to all Muslim soldiers serving in the U.S. military. It would be unfortunate if this tragic incident caused the Army to lose completely the disciplined restraint it has exercised in this area since September 11.

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