POTUS and the Subtext of Tragedy

by Joshua H. Liberatore

Interrupting his prepared remarks for the closing session of the American Indian Tribal Nations Conference last week Thursday, POTUS spoke up on the breaking news that was blazing like an untamed wildfire across wire reports and Internet headlines by late afternoon:

My immediate thoughts and prayers are with the wounded and with the families of the fallen, and with those who live and serve at Fort Hood. And these are men and women who have made the selfless and courageous decision to risk and at times give their lives to protect the rest of us on a daily basis. It’s difficult enough when we lose these brave Americans in battles overseas. It is horrifying that they should come under fire at an Army base on American soil. (November 5, 2009)

POTUS chose his words carefully, measuring sadness and regret, gratitude and admiration, but wisely avoiding the anger and belligerence that were already surfacing in many media reactions from both sides of the political spectrum. The shooter, an American citizen from Roanoke, VA, was a Muslim. Murmurs of “terrorism” and “suicide mission” were already lurking on the lips of even NPR’s commentators. For his part, POTUS sought solace in general themes and trusted rituals, ordering flags to fly at half-mast through Veterans Day.

And it’s also recognition of the men and women who put their lives on the line every day to protect our safety and uphold our values. We honor their service, we stand in awe of their sacrifice, and we pray for the safety of those who fight and for the families of those who have fallen. (November 6, 2009)

What transpired at the Fort Hood Army base was surely a tragedy, a massacre of most ugly proportions (13 dead, 30 wounded). What makes it worse is the saddening alacrity with which justified alarm spills over into unthinking panic and brazen speculation. In the reduction process, crucial subtexts inevitably get ignored. If suspect Nidal Malik Hasan had been a Christian white man from Omaha, would we know within hours of the shooting what church he worshipped at? Would reporters already have interviewed his pastor? Would his family’s citizenship and ethnic heritage have come under immediate scrutiny? Thankfully, POTUS has been delicate. In his Saturday morning video address, he chose not to name Hassan, nor did he mention either the 39-year-old doctor’s self-proclaimed Palestinian identity or his Muslim faith.

This past Thursday, on a clear Texas afternoon, an Army psychiatrist walked into the Soldier Readiness Processing Center and began shooting his fellow soldiers. It is an act of violence that would have been heartbreaking had it occurred anyplace in America. It is a crime that would have horrified us had its victims been Americans of any background. But it’s all the more heartbreaking and all the more despicable because of the place where it occurred and the patriots who were its victims. (November 7, 2009)

The subtext of the incident is more complicated and painful than the mainstream media prefer to countenance, although the Washington Post did have the guts to run a fairly lengthy story on Hasan’s unhappiness in the Army, his intensive efforts to be relieved from service, his immigrant family’s secular and patriotic background. Hasan’s job both at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and at Fort Hood was to counsel wounded soldiers returning from Afghanistan and Iraq, many of whom suffered from posttraumatic stress disorder, what in Freud’s day was more candidly titled “shell shock.” Hasan routinely complained of the harassment and ridicule he often received for being a Muslim after September 11. He argued with colleagues about the injustice of the wars that were breaking his patients’ nerves. According to relatives, he did everything he could to be discharged from the military, even offering to repay his medical school expenses.

The SRP is where our men and women in uniform go before getting deployed. It’s where they get their teeth checked and their medical records updated and make sure everything is in order before getting shipped out. It was in this place, on a base where our soldiers ought to feel most safe, where those brave Americans who are preparing to risk their lives in defense of our Nation, lost their lives in a crime against our Nation. Soldiers stationed in Iraq, Afghanistan, and around the world called and emailed loved ones at Ft. Hood, all expressing the same stunned reaction: I’m supposed to be the one in harm’s way, not you. (November 7, 2009)

One of those soldiers about to be deployed was Hasan himself, a prospect that deeply upset him, and in the words of his aunt “he must have snapped.” Apparently, Hasan is not alone in his despair. In October alone, 16 U.S. soldiers committed suicide; the suicide rate among Army personnel is up 37% from 2008 and is now well above the rate for civilian Americans.

Thursday’s shooting was one of the most devastating ever committed on an American military base. And yet even as we saw the worst of human nature on full display, we also saw the best of America. We saw soldiers and civilians alike rushing to the aid of fallen comrades, tearing off bullet-riddled clothes to treat the injured, using blouses as tourniquets, taking down the shooter even as they bore wounds themselves. (November 7, 2009)

Though it received very little media attention, and only a brief, perfunctory statement from the White House, an eerily similar shooting took place last May at a psychiatric clinic at the dubiously named “Camp Victory” in Baghdad, in which Sgt. John M. Russell opened fire and killed five other soldiers. This bloody episode, all but ignored by the Iraq-weary American media, was nevertheless duly noted by the military, which commissioned a wider-ranging report that concluded: “There is no clear procedure or established training guidelines in any of the references for managing soldiers identified as ‘at risk’ for suicide or the proper way to conduct suicide watch.” A journalist who has looked into the conditions and procedures for psychiatric cases in the military discovered that soldiers who suffer from PTSD are often marginalized and punished; in some cases a profoundly bizarre and paradoxical bribe is offered: a troubled soldier lobbying for release from duty can purchase his freedom by agreeing to deploy to Afghanistan or Iraq.

We saw soldiers bringing to bear on our own soil the skills they had been trained to use abroad, skills that had been honed through years of determined effort for one purpose and one purpose only: to protect and defend the United States of America. We saw the valor, selflessness, and unity of purpose that makes our service men and women the finest fighting force on Earth, that make the United States military the best the world has ever known, and that make all of us proud to be Americans. (November 7, 2009)

Despite these bleak reminders of the deteriorating mental health of our military personnel, it’s no surprise that incidents like that of Fort Hood engender renewed praise for the heroism and dedication of our soldiers. Base commander Lt. Gen. Robert Cone summed up his assessment of the tragedy by applauding the first responders who shot Hasan and rushed to attend the wounded: “Suffice it to say . . . the American Soldier did a great job.” POTUS cautiously emphasized that comforting narrative as well, reminding us of the debt of gratitude we owe those whose job it is “to protect and defend the United States of America.” Is anyone asking whether that job has become altogether too onerous?

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