Fort Hood and the rush to non-judgment

In perhaps its most cited line, the national commission that investigated the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks blamed the nation’s “failure of imagination” in not recognizing the signs of mayhem to come.

Today, as events before and after the Fort Hood massacre make clear, we suffer less from a failure of imagination than one of clear thinking – a malady from which we must recover if we hope to prevent more such massacres.

Immediately after last week’s rampage, which left 13 dead and 38 wounded, President Obama and other national leaders cautioned that we not rush to judgment, meaning that we not assume Islam was a motivating factor for the alleged killer, Army psychiatrist Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan. They need not have worried about our rush to target religion, for that’s not where our thinking goes astray.

Quite the contrary, in cases like this, we rush to judgment of another kind – paradoxically, to non-judgment. Cognizant that our Constitution protects religious freedom, and pressured by ever-sensitive Muslim groups, we avoid any statements or actions that might cast aspersions on Islam or its followers.

So, we turn elsewhere, to explanations that do not require judgments about the dangers that flow from militant Islam, that do not suggest that Fort Hood fits within a troubling pattern of attacks at domestic military sites (plots at Fort Fix and Quantico, the shooting death of an Army recruiter in Little Rock), that do not indicate that Fort Hood may prove a harbinger of more home-grown terrorism to come.

We paint a portrait of the killer as victim – of the loneliness that comes to those with few friends, of anti-Muslim bias in the military, of “pre-traumatic stress disorder” that comes from hearing the heart-wrenching stories of so many returning veterans from Afghanistan and Iraq, of fears of an impending deployment to the battlefield, of inner demons that a troubled man did not have the power to overcome.

Our national therapist, Dr. Phil, suggested Hasan suffered from the unusual stress of the especially brutal wars in which the United States has recently engaged (though Hasan had seen no combat). The New York Times placed him among a long line of military psychiatrists who have suffered from the strains inherent in their jobs. Newsweek’s Evan Thomas feared that a focus on Hasan’s Muslim background would incite America’s “right wing” to fury and concluded that the gunman was probably just a nut.

But, based on telling facts from scattered news reports, the truth lays elsewhere – however blind our government agencies were to the signs of impending mayhem, however uncomfortable we are to the reality of Islamic-driven terrorists in our midst.

  • Hasan’s fellow Army doctors expressed concern to their supervisors that Hasan had divided loyalties – to Muslims world-wide and to the United States.  One complained about his “anti-American” rants.
  • Hasan wrote 10 to 20 e-mails over the last two years to a radical cleric in Yemen who promotes jihad, who served as an imam in a Virginia mosque that Hasan had attended, who preached at mosques that three future 9/11 hijackers attended, and who praised last week’s massacre as a “heroic act.”
  • In mid- 2007, rather than speak on a medical topic as he was supposed to do, Hasan lectured his supervisors and other mental health experts about Islam, about suicide bombing and about American Muslims who might be hesitant to fight in the Muslim countries of Iraq and Afghanistan.
  • Hasan described himself as a “Palestinian,” authored blog posts that described suicide bombing favorably, told classmates in his master’s program that Islamic law trumped the Constitution, and proselytized about Islam to veterans under his care.
  • Hasan told a friend the night before the shootings that he should quit the military because the Koran teaches “you’re not supposed to have alliances with Jews or Christians or others,” he gave away his belongings and handed out Korans to neighbors hours before the shootings, and, during the shootings, he fired over 100 rounds from two pistols while shouting “Allahu Akbar” (“God is great”).

In the coming days, we will learn more about what Hasan did in the hours, weeks and years before the massacre. Congressional committees will hold hearings to learn what went wrong and how we can do better.

But all the investigations and all the hearings can’t fix what’s really ailing us – our blindness in the face of facts and our refusal to speak openly and act accordingly about the true nature of the challenges ahead.

We didn’t see it coming because we didn’t want to. We don’t accept what really happened because we don’t want to. And the longer we refuse to see things as they are, the more endangered we will become.

We need not more information but a broader perspective. In essence, we need an attitude adjustment.

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