“Every thing is what it is, and not another thing.”
Bishop Joseph Butler (1692-1752)
Like everybody else, when I first heard about the shootings at Fort Hood I immediately rushed to judgment, assuming that anybody opening fire on soldiers on an army base in Texas expected to die. Thus the shooter was either 1) a soldier who had cracked or 2) a priapic jihadist aroused by the thought of all those virgins in paradise. Reasoning that an armed Islamist would struggle to penetrate Fort Hood’s security, I concluded that the shooter was probably an unfortunate soldier gone berserk. A few hours later however I discovered secret option 3) that the “alleged” shooter Nidal Hasan was both a soldier and a jihadi nutbag — an entirely new hybrid, in other words.
Of course, this just goes to show the wisdom of suspending judgment until all the facts are in. Alas, this lesson was lost on the media, who from the minute news of the shooting broke managed to get almost every detail of the story wrong.
At first they told us that the killer was dead; then that there might have been more than one shooter. Soon we knew the suspect’s name, and learned that he was a Muslim convert. Then we learned that he had been Muslim since birth. Then we were told that he might have cracked as a result of exposure to combat, only he had never seen combat. Or maybe it was a response to racism he had experienced, or because as a devout Muslim he was unhappy about being deployed to Afghanistan. (And yet curiously, such a degree of sympathetic understanding was never extended to the likes of Timothy McVeigh or Seung-Hui Cho who also vented their rage by killing strangers.)
Indeed, even Mr. Obama lost his cool, by rushing to the judgment that we were all rushing to judgment, and asking us not to do it. After all Americans do love their pitchforks, don’t they? And when it got out that the suspect was not dead, and that he had shouted Allahu Akbar before opening fire, well — it became all the more important not to rush to judgment, and especially not to assume that the massacre had anything to do with terrorism or Islamic extremism.
Tired of listening to all the non-judgmental judgments, on Saturday I visited Fort Hood for myself. I wanted to listen to the thoughts and fears of all those utterly insignificant individuals we never hear from on TV or in the papers — i.e. the people who actually live there, both on post and in Killeen, the civilian town that exists to serve Fort Hood. But there was more to it than that — I also wanted to gauge the level of rage on the street. You see there’s a mosque just down the road from me in Austin and I had not noticed any pitch forks or flaming torches in the night. But I didn’t want to assume that the apparent absence of angry right wing mobs outside my window meant that there weren’t any out there. That would be rushing to judgment.
I arrived in Killeen around noon and spent some time driving up and down the streets surrounding Fort Hood. It was a low income, mixed race area with lots of pawn shops, fast food joints and tattoo parlors, plus multiple military supply stores for soldiers wanting to supplement their kit.
The first local I spoke to was the Reverend Tracy Smith, of the Rivers of Living Waters Ministries in Killeen. I met him in a McDonald’s located a few blocks from Fort Hood, where the walls were decorated with pictures of tanks and cannons. Like practically everyone in the town, he was an ‘army brat’, with relatives in the military — in fact, his cousin had been undergoing a graduation service when the shooting began: ‘My cousin, her family, they got caught up in the middle of it…and when I heard my family members were that close to it, it brought it closer to home. She had just gotten back from Iraq so she’s combat tested. But the family members aren’t, know what I mean?’
On Nidal Hasan, the Reverend Smith had this to say: ‘I heard he was going out to fight members of his own religion, so I imagine that must have been pretty hard.’ At no point however did he launch into an attack on Islam. When I asked whether he thought there would be mob-like retaliations against innocent Muslims, he had faith in Americans: ‘I don’t think it will happen, I hope it won’t, but there might be some small incidents involving narrow-minded people.’
Ultimately Smith was optimistic: ‘If we look at the history of America, we have always been able to rise above. An eagle always rises above the storm.’
My next stop was ‘America’s Heroes’, a comic shop located a few blocks from the entrance to Fort Hood. The sales clerk told me his clientele was 98% military. It makes sense: we forget how young soldiers are, or that most of them have never lived away from home before. A few of his customers had spoken about the events on base, but mainly about how long they had spent in lockdown. On Friday he had noticed much higher security around town, reminiscent of the days after 9/11, however by Saturday it was almost back to normal.
The 9/11 theme was echoed a few blocks down by Lewis Smeen who ran the Military Depot store. ‘When I heard people had got killed on post, it was like a shock. After 9/11 things were starting to calm down, and now it was like: oh no, here we are again. It wasn’t the empty feeling I felt on 9/11… that was surrealistic, like — was the world ending? But this was like a reminder, that there are still crazies out there.’
Business was bad: Smeen had only seen five soldiers the entire day, down from an average of thirty or forty for a Saturday. As for Nidal Hasan, he wanted to know how so many warning signs had been missed. ‘You have to be fair and even-handed, of course. I don’t think every Muslim is like this guy, but there were warning signs.’
As for a possible backlash against Muslims in the army, Smeen was doubtful: ‘I’ve had Muslim soldiers in my shop; they’re usually with buddies or comrades. Sometimes I’ve heard talk against the war from Black Muslims, but not from Arab-Americans, with the Muslim heritage. There’s whackos of every background in the military so there may be a few incidents, but I don’t think it’s going to get out of hand.’
All the pawn shops in town had adopted a strict ‘no comment’ policy on the massacre, presumably because they sold guns for personal use and did not want to get mixed up in the controversy, even though none of them had sold Hasan the arms he is alleged to have used. The staff at Quantico Arms and Tactical Supply on Fort Hood Street also had ‘no comment’ to make, but didn’t object to me hanging around the shop, and it was here that I met two soldiers who had been on post when the shooting occurred.
The first soldier gave his name as ‘Park’. As he had spent six hours on lockdown he had found out the details of the massacre long after the rest of us living outside Fort Hood. He described in detail the boredom and disorientation of the lockdown experience, before getting on to the topic of soldiers’ attitudes towards Hasan: ‘People are shocked. Down range shit happens, whatever. But if it’s a fellow soldier doing this to other soldier, especially stateside — well, you just don’t do that to people.’
For Park it was Hasan’s rank, not his alleged religious beliefs, that was the issue. ‘It’s not going to be easy for the young soldiers. Think about it — for most soldiers it’s their first time away from home, away from state. They’re fresh out of high school. The relationship between a junior soldier and an officer is like a son and a father- or grandfather: you can trust them, look up to them. They’ve got more education, they’ve got more training, but now it’s an officer who went out and shot everybody. You must trust him with your life — and then you get backstabbed. But it’s more than a backstab. It’s like your wife cheating on you… no, it’s more serious than that. You are deployed and you come home and your house is empty, cleaned out, everything gone. But it’s worse than that. Those kinds of things you can move up and move on, but this…?’
The second soldier, James explained in more detail about the fearful, nervous atmosphere on post after the attack and echoed Park’s feeling that some kind of sacred trust had been broken. In fact, he said, it was precisely this betrayal that had fuelled the anger against Hasan.
‘Yesterday there was a great outrage as to why he was still alive. There was a real pitchfork and torch mentality — especially in Killeen, among civilians… the people in the town want to see punishment.’
This had nothing to do with religion however: ‘They dislike him because he’s not an outsider, or deemed as a terrorist — I mean that’s a justified fight. No this is much different — it’s because he wears our uniform, because he’s our “superior”, and then he turns around and shoots you. That’s a betrayal.’
Some soldiers, ‘more than a few’, would now distrust all Arabs, said James. ‘But I can’t speak for them. As for me, I have no issue with Arabs as a people, or Muslims as a religion. If they’re tolerant of me I’m tolerant of them.’
A few hours later in Austin the media spin was still in over drive. Nidal Hasan was being diagnosed by people who had never met him, and who had no knowledge of the background to the case. The NYT was in the driver’s seat, successfully resolving every controversial issue before the investigation was complete. A fantastical new condition, second hand PTSD, had been discovered, whereby the poor major, overwhelmed by listening to soldiers discuss traumas he had not experienced, simply snapped and just had to kill lots of his fellow soldiers… and no doubt deliver long lectures about the justness of suicide bombings etc, etc. Then we learned he was actually counseling soldiers who had not yet been deployed, and had thus contracted second hand pre-traumatic stress disorder: a world first.
It is true that we should not leap to judgment; especially as each day we learn something new. But the truth is that a whole series of judgments have already been made by our elders and betters in the administration and in the media, and a whole narrative has been prepared in which the killer is the victim, while the real enemy to be feared is the unwashed horde drooling and snarling in deepest, darkest America. This is obscene: of course there are bigots out there, and there always will be, but the vast majority of people can distinguish between an extremist whack-job and an honest citizen.
Meanwhile, it’s a hard life in the army. You get shot at, blown up and paid vey little. When you’re demobbed, you might wind up living in the cheap housing in Killeen, not far from Fort Hood, among the tattoo parlors and Pawn Shops. Making these sacrifices, the least you can expect is that your superior officers don’t shoot you. And so when that rule is violated, the minimum respect we owe the dead is to uncover the truth about what happened to them, whatever it may be- and however uncomfortable it makes us feel.
First posted on the When Falls the Coliseum, November 11th 2009