November 19, 2009
This commentary was first published by CounterPunch.org.
Words have ensnarled the rampage at Fort Hood. Nothing more needs to be said. Thirteen dead and 31 injured. What sets this massacre apart from the bombing at Oklahoma City (with 168 dead) and Columbine High (with 12 dead) is that the assailant here is a Muslim at a time when the United States is at war in two Muslim-majority countries (Iraq and Afghanistan). Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, as well as Eric Harris and Dylan Kiebold, were all white. Their acts brought forth revulsion but not condemnation of Christianity; that would have been ridiculous.
All these acts have indeed once more refreshed the necessary, but repetitive, debates over gun control and mental health care for war veterans. It is fitting to remember that the father of Columbine victim Daniel Mauser (age 15), Tom Mauser, is a leading gun-control advocate. Traction has not come his way, as it has not for many of those parents and loved ones of those who were killed by assault rifles that do not belong where they find themselves (such as in places like Guns Galore, in Killeen, Texas, home to Fort Hood, and where Major Nidal Malik Hasan bought his FN Herstal tactical pistol, a standard issue gun used by NATO troops in Afghanistan).
Fort Hood, like other bases that send young people to ghastly wars, has seen a spate of suicides (10 in 2009 and 76 since 2003) and cases of violence against women (up by 75 percent since 2001). Post-traumatic stress disorder has become a routine problem. Multiple deployments don’t help. Nor does recalcitrance to admit to mental illness as a real injury, as much as a physical one. All this is on the table. Including the failure by the military to identify serious problems in the well-being of Major Hasan. He was obviously not suited to the military and should have been discharged rather than be shunted from Walter Reed to Fort Hood. Large bureaucracies are like this: rather than take action, the envelope is pushed down the counter. This envelope contained a letter bomb.
Major Hasan’s own reasons for action will probably never be known. He has acted. The action has provoked analysis. Some of the ideas are useful, and hopefully productive; others are toxic. The deployment of the idea of "political correctness" and the shifting of the burden of explanation to Hasan’s religion is a convenient way to avoid all else. Muslim Americans anticipated the backlash immediately (One might remember CBS’s Connie Chung right after the Oklahoma bombing in 1995: "According to a government source, it has Middle East terrorism written all over it." It turned out to be an Iraq War veteran and his friend; that’s the closest the attack came to the Middle East).
All the requisite Muslim American organizations hastily put together press releases to condemn Major Hasan’s attack, even before the smell of cordite left the processing center where he went on his rampage. This was mete. After all, it was important to make the point against the kind of assumptions that would float out of the slime of FOX and its various friends. As it turned out, it didn’t stop anything. Nor could President Obama’s plea to keep religion out of it. Nor could General George Casey, who told CNN that the backlash against Muslims and Muslim American soldiers "would be a shame as great a tragedy as this was, it would be a shame if our diversity became a casualty as well." The Army has been particular about diversity (for more on this see George Baca’s forthcoming book from Rutgers University Press, Conjuring Crisis: Racism and the Struggle for Civil Rights in a Southern Military Town). This is why it joined the amicus brief against the end to affirmative action at the University of Michigan (Grutter v. Bollinger). The text is instructive: "[the case’s] outcome could affect the diversity of our [N]ation’s officer corps, and in turn, the military’s ability to fulfill its missions." When asked about this support, Lt. General Becton told NPR that diversity was a "combat multiplier. It brings about unit cohesiveness." The brief was signed by all the senior officers, each one battle-tested. Nothing pious here.
But here comes the easy bile. Published, no less, by Forbes.
The author, Tunku Varadarajan, is a professor at the well-named Stern School of Business and a luminary in the various financial pages (a regular columnist at Forbes). His essay on the Fort Hood massacre is called "Going Muslim." You can close your eyes and imagine what he argues. It does not require much sophistication.
Varadarajan thinks that Muslims are an entity apart. They cannot integrate. Indeed, theirs is a "fake integration." Fine, most of the "hundreds of thousands of Muslims in our midst," he writes, might not want to kill others, but "there are a few (perhaps many more than a few) who are so radicalized that they would kill their fellow Americans." The bulk of Muslims are not so radicalized, but, to Varadarajan, they are still irreducible. ("Muslims are the most difficult ‘incomers’ in the ongoing integration challenge.") They are Muslims first and last. Consider this: "Muslims may be more extreme because their religion is founded on bellicose conquest, a contempt for infidels and an obligation for piety that is more extensive than in other schemes." Any Muslim, then, is a danger.
It is nonsense, plagiarized from the paranoid notebooks kept by Daniel Pipes. I bet Varadarajan has not read the Quran or listened to the Taqwacore bands or had an intense discussion with The Muslim Guy (Arslan Iftikhar).
Varadarajan used to write for the Wall Street Journal. In 2005, its editorial page described American Muslims as "role models both as Americans and as Muslims." The impetus for that statement was the imputed danger of Muslims in Europe (the so-called idea of Eurabia, the Fifth Column of Muslims). The Wall Street Journal decided that on balance Muslim Americans were ideal citizens, well-educated, professionals, with a voting pattern balanced between the two major parties and, importantly for the paper, with a plurality in favor of a lower tax rate. Nothing of this kind comes out in Varadarajan’s essay, which is far closer to the kind of reaction by Rush Limbaugh and Joe Lieberman (Calling Joe Biden, whose best line so far was used against Guiliani, that he can’t say a sentence without a noun, a verb and 9/11).
If Muslims can be reduced to their religion, and if their religion is indeed extremist, then the pabulum of political correctness, Varadarajan believes, should go. "President Obama," he writes, "was as craven as a community college diversity vice-president when he said that no one should jump to conclusions." It "flies in the face of common sense" to be considerate to Muslims, who might "go Muslim" at any moment. Racial profiling is therefore good; it is not far to the internment camps.
* * *
Not far from the gates of Fort Hood sits the Under the Hood Café.
Run by CODEPINK member Cynthia Thomas, whose husband has been on three tours of Iraq, the café provides a safe place for veterans to come talk frankly about the things that the culture of the military forbids, such as how to deal with trauma and the loneliness of the post-battlefield condition.
The café recalls an earlier time, when Fort Hood was home to a coffeehouse, Oleo Strut (named for an aircraft shock absorber), which was the base of anti-war activity. In those days of the draft for the Vietnam War, the soldiers had a much clearer sense of disgruntlement and did not labor under the immense ideological feint of the war on terror. Everyone was familiar with the notion that Vietnam was not a threat to the United States and that the conflict in Southeast Asia was absurd. That is not so clear these days.
In 1966, three soldiers refused to go to Vietnam. Pfc. James Johnson, Pvt. Dennis Mora and Pvt. David Samas joined together to form the Fort Hood Three. They were court-martialed and sentenced to two and a half years in Leavenworth Penitentiary. When they came of out jail, all three went to work in the Du Bois clubs, affiliated with the Communist Party. In their Statement, dated June 30, 1966, the three pointed out that they refused to fight in the "immoral, illegal and unjust" war, which was being fought against an enemy that "had the moral and physical support of most of the peasantry who were fighting for their independence." They rejected the imputation of racism. ("We were told that you couldn’t tell [the Vietnamese rebels] apartthat they looked like any other skinny peasant.")
The war was aimless. "No one used the word ‘winning’ anymore," they wrote, "because in Vietnam it has no meaning. Our officers just talk about five and ten more years of war with at least one half million of our boys thrown into the grinder. We have been told many times that we may face a Vietnamese woman or child and that we will have to kill them. We will never go there—to do that."
Substitute Afghanistan for Vietnam, and things are updated.
Major Hasan was obviously strained in many ways. He needed counseling. But he also needed to be part of a public discussion about the futility of these wars. There is not much of that on offer. Rather, he fell into discussion with a cleric in Virginia who was equally bilious, the mirror image of the war planners. There is too much blood in these conversations. There is insufficient courage to talk about peace and justice.
Vijay Prashad is the George and Martha Kellner Chair of South Asian History and Director of International Studies at Trinity College. His new book is The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World (The New Press). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.