10 November 2009

Excellent Point re: Ft. Hood Shootings

I noticed that a lot of you are weighing in on the shootings at Fort Hood at Tom Ricks' blog, particularly in this post. I think the best response comes from Paul G (I assume he's the same Paul who also posts here at WOI). I hope that neither he nor Tom will mind me re-posting this, because I think that it's an excellent piece. In sum, although there are some huge red flags in Maj Hasan's life story, we still need to wait until we assemble all the facts before we make any hasty conclusions about his motivations. As Paul G notes, it's unfair to over-simplify his motivations.

Leave aside the military connection and you could almost substitute Seung-hui Cho [the Virginia Tech Shooter] for Major Hasan. The similarities are striking. Socially inept, depressed, descent into extremist thinking of one sort or another, real or perceived grievances against authority, a perception that “they” wouldn’t listen to him or were out to get him, a belief that he was better than/knew more than others. His writings became more infused with violent rhetoric as time went on. People around him started noticing that “something wasn’t right.”

The other thing that is consistent, and has been consistent in every one of these horrific acts, is the tendency to scapegoat and to search for simple (and usually wrong) answers. With the Columbine killers, it was because they were goths and liked violent video games — someone should have seen it coming. Someone should have done something about it. Cho was just so manifestly weird that somebody should have done something. Now we have Hasan who was spouting extremist rhetoric — someone should have noticed and done something. Have you ever noticed how many people spout extremist rhetoric without going off the tracks? In my state (Virginia) alone, there are at least several million of them who occasionally say something or write something that could be construed as “extremist.” Maybe it was because he was a Muslim, as if we haven’t already learned that this, by itself, isn’t an indicator of anything.

This is understandable. People like simple answers, even when there aren’t any. The problem with trying to isolate people who have the potential to do something like this is the extremely high number of “false positives” you’re going to get. Think of the “no fly” list that saved us from terrorists like Sen. Ted Kennedy, David Nelson (of the ‘60s show “Ozzie and Harriet”) and many, many others. When something like Ft. Hood happens, we ignore the fact that we are a country of laws, our authorities are bound to act within the law, and that law covers everyone, not just outliers. The law limits the information that can be obtained, the means that can be used to obtain it and what can be done with it (and who it can be disseminated to) once it is obtained. The military is made up of 2,000,000 people, all of whom see, hear and read things, assess them, draw conclusions, and take actions every day that are based on insufficient evidence. Often those decisions are wrong. Most of the time those decisions don’t matter; in the overall scheme of things, what does it matter that you made a left turn at the light instead of a right turn?

Here’s what we appear to know about this guy. He’s 39 years old, single, lived a frugal lifestyle, was a Muslim, went to church regularly, gave to charity, was a psychiatrist whose patients (or at least the ones we’ve heard from) seemed to think he did good work, acted a bit weird, wanted out of the Army, was the subject of a poor efficiency report for unknown reasons, and wrote some inflammatory things on the internet. Oh, and eight years ago, he attended the same church at the same time as did three of the 9/11 terrorists, as did at least several hundred other people. Can anyone really believe that this set of facts would justify anyone other than Jack Bauer taking any kind of action against this guy?

We need to get real and recognize that no matter how we cut it, this profile could apply to many, many people, most of whom are unlikely to ever present any kind of a threat to anyone. This kind of thing is the human equivalent of a lightning strike. There’s no reasonable way we can prevent it. We’re a nation of 300,000,000 people. A very few of them are going to turn out to be people who do this kind of thing and there’s very little we can do about it. Someone, possibly a few someones, in the Army are going to bear the brunt of Hasan’s actions. Were they really responsible? Probably not, but that won’t stop us from blaming the whole thing on them.


Paul said...

Damn, thought I covered my tracks :-)

Thanks for the recognition.

Anonymous said...

On a slightly different note, I finished reading an account of the 1994 crash that killed 25 82d paratroopers (the Green Ramp disaster). The reaction of the soldiers then reminds me of the current response at Ft. Hood. It's available online at http://www.history.army.mil/books/Green-Ramp/Popec.htm

I had heard about it later from guys who had been at Ft. Bragg during that time but not some of the details. Interestingly, Stanley McCrystal was the 2/504 Inf BC at the time.