November 12, 2009

Fort Hood & the War on Definitions

The tragic event at Fort Hood last week appears to have settled down into more of a conventional news story. 12 soldiers and one civilian were murdered by an Army psychiatrist who went berserk. Many others were wounded, some very seriously (well, I suppose any gunshot wound is serious). The story would take its quiet place in the annals of American mass murders, along with disgruntled postal killers, school and college massacres and the rest in the sad litany of carnage in Free Fire Zone America, except for one salient fact: the shooter was a Muslim of Palestinian descent who had been in contact with a radical Muslim imam, who in turn had presided over mosques where three al-Qaeda, 9-11 hijackers had attended, in Virginia and San Diego (including one of the pilots, Hani Hanjour). The two San Diego 9-11 conspirators were the "muscle" hijackers who gave the CIA the slip in Southeast Asia and settled into suburban life in Southern California. You can read all about them in the Report of the 9-11 Commission.

This fact raised the stakes considerably. The forces of Political Correctness were mobilized immediately, of course, so that there were stories about the story almost before there was a story. Although Major Nidal Malik Hasan was himself pretty clear that his attack was motivated by "religionist" thinking (what else do we think it could have been? why was he shooting exclusively soldiers in the Readiness Center who were about to deploy to Iraq & Afghanistan?), it became verboten, in the beginning, to even talk this way. Many other Muslim soldiers in the Army were "consulted" so that a balanced view could be presented. Glenn Greenwald, who's real good on civil liberties and the law but goes a little crazy when anyone utters an anti-Muslim sentiment because of his deep dislike of Israel-U.S. connections, did a kind of Chomsky number where he started talking about Predator drones conducting "terrorist" attacks in Pakistan and Afghanistan. You know, who you calling a terrorist? I forget exactly how he got there, but I'm sure his logic was impeccable. It's just that it has nothing to do with the real world.

David Brooks went the other way and stated his conclusion that there's just something about Islam which results in its adherents regarding other people as sub-human. Of course, Mr. Brooks first had to begin at the beginning and set the context for this view, which in his case is always to build civilization from the ground up: "Humans breathe air. We all breathe the same air. Yet what we do with that air is different. Different cultures use the air for different things..." Poor David. He knows he's really, really smart. He just can't seem to prove it to anyone else's satisfaction.

After the political correctness wore off, people got down to business and started arguing (a) whether this was a terrorist attack, and if so, (b) who should be blamed. Now we're talkin'.

Was it a terrorist attack? First of all, you can't have a terrorist attack without a terrorist, can you? So was Hasan a terrorist before he shot up Fort Hood, as a result of shooting up Fort Hood, or not at all?

Like David Brooks, of course, we need to back up and lay the groundwork. For about an hour or so. I don't want to use the definition of terrorism currently in vogue, because it's case-specific. It has to do with our ongoing efforts to defeat Radical Islam. So I'll resort to the American Heritage Dictionary: "Terrorism, n. The systematic use of terror, violence, and intimidation to achieve an end."

Interesting. Nothing said there about "asymmetrical" warfare or any of that, which appears to be a definitional gloss on the topic to differentiate anything done by a nation-state from nonstate actors. On the other hand, what the hell does the American Heritage Dictionary know?

Anyway, it seems to me that Hasan gets a free pass from the dictionary, because it's hard to call what he did "systematic." Maybe the important take-away point is that these definitions don't really help much. After you get through defining it, the case remains that of an Army major who decided to shoot a lot of American soldiers for religious reasons of his own. You can't escape that. In psychiatric terms, this psychiatrist was in a state of profound cognitive dissonance over being part of a military which was in turn engaged in fighting countries where his co-religionists are the overwhelming majority, and the internal conflict apparently drove him to murder.

Did he kill all those soldiers as part of his part in worldwide Islamic jihad? We'll never know, I don't think. Was he okay with the West, in general, but this specific conflict overwhelmed his religious conscience and drove him to kill? We'll probably never know that either.

Like most murders, it has the "greater meaning" we assign to it, which we do in order to cope with tragedy. But it remains murder. A lot of dead individuals caught up in one man's internal turmoil. It doesn't tell us anything about the War on Terror, nor much about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It does suggest that a determined individual in the United States who wants to act out on his impulses, religious, ideological or otherwise, can find the means and firepower to do so, apparently even when he's on the FBI's radar because of consorting with suspected Islamic radicals, and there isn't much we can do about it if we want to remain a free society. That's not a popular conclusion in this country, but I think it remains true nonetheless.

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