Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Parsing the available information on the Fort Hood massacre

"Updates to the investigation surrounding Thursday's shooting were scarce Monday," writes Amanda Kim Stairrett speaking of last week's horrific shootings at Fort Hood, in FBI, CID continuing investigation Killeen Daily Herald 11/10/09.

But that hasn't stopped people from speculating freely. Joe Lieberman, honorary Democrat for reasons that apparently only his colleagues in the Senate can fathom, was on FOX News Sunday talking about having an investigation of "the worst terrorist attack since 9/11." Holy Joe is chairman of the Senate Internal Security Committee and his fellow Democratic members apparently can't say no to him over anything. So he can probably have his hearing if he really wants.

But the publicly available facts about the case are still sparse. And what is being confidently reported is often contradictory and confusing. Did the shooter have one pistol or two? Was Officer Kimberley Munley shot three times or five? Did Munley take down the shooter herself or did her partner Mark Todd deliver the shot that brought him down?

The body count seems to be stable in the reporting at 13. The Army has publicly released the names of the dead after the required notice to their families (presumably). Amanda Kim Stairrett's report linked above says that 15 injured in the attack were still in the hospital Monday afternoon and 27 had been discharged. She doesn't mention how many injured may have been treated on the spot and not taken to the hospital, if any.

Since the Republicans and others clearly want to use this case to promote Islamophobia, the details of the attack could turn out to be important beyond the legal case against the shooter. If we assume that there was at least one bullet per injury, that means at least 55 rounds were fired. Depending on the time frame and the weapon(s) used, that's possible. There was some early speculation about the possibility of "friendly fire" injuries being involved, i.e., victims wounded by accident by people firing at the shooter. But if Munley was the only responder, or she and her partner the only ones, that seems less likely. Kate Harding writes about some of the reporting problems in Was Kimberly Munley the real Fort Hood hero? Salon 11/09/09, although she almost gets lost in speculating about what various narrative frames might imply about larger cultural issues.

Dana Priest, who's one of the Washington Post's best reporters, has a strange story on the suspect, Maj. Nidal M. Hasan: Fort Hood suspect warned of threats within the ranks 11/10/09. As Taylor Marsh's reaction shows, it's easy to read Priest's article as virtually a warning that he might take violent action. But what the article says is that Hasan gave a presentation in his role as an Army psychiatrist about factors that might cause US Muslim troops to turn against their own forces. As far as those present who heard it, it's not at all clear to me that they had reason to take it as other than face value. Shouldn't Army psychiatrists be talking about such possibilities? In an online chat, Priest confirms that she does think that his listeners should have seen that as a warning of trouble. but then later she concedes that they may have seen no reason to take it as such a warning sign. The slide show Hasan used in that presentation seems long on Qu'rānic verses for a medical presentation. But I don't see any obvious flags that he was somehow trying to validate fratricide (killing other soldiers in your own army) or acts of violence.

This is kind of sad to see, though, from the online chat:

Washington, D.C.: Did the Post ever point out that Timothy McVeigh was Christian? Should we be kicking out all the Christians from the military? All white males?

Dana Priest: I don't remember McVeigh's actions being motivated by his faith. He hated the government. As I recall.
[Sigh!] Actually, there is evidence that McVeigh was influenced by the white supremacist Christian Identity movement, which is very influential in the white supremacist gutter. See Elohim City Anti-Defamation League n/d (2001 or later). But Beltway Village pundits know not to look for religious motivations among non-Muslim domestic far-right terrorists; the default assumption is that they are the proverbial "lone nuts".

In a later story, Post reporter Ann Scott Tyson quotes an anonymous Army source claiming that Hasan did not formally seek to leave military, Army official says 11/11/09.

Here are some of the key factual questions in my mind:

  • What actually happened at the shooting? Were the victims all hit by bullets from the perpetrator or was "friendly fire" involved?
  • What was the shooter's motivation? To what extent was this a consciously political or religious act?
  • Did he have actual accomplices of some sort? By actual accomplices, I mean people that actively enabled him to commit that specific crime. Having heard some radical Islamic preacher may be a clue to his motivations. But that's not the same as an accomplice to crime. Moral responsibility is another question, though it's pure speculation at this point.
  • How did security at the base fail? If a bunch of people got killed because of preventable failures or shirking of responsibility on the part of base security, that's something that should be addressed. Kimberly Munley is being understandably praised for her heroism. But the current story is that she happened to be in the area having her car repaired and she and her partner heard shots and went to investigate. Munley and Todd may have performed well. But was base security working properly if the first responders were a couple of officers who just happened to be in the area picking up their car?
In connection with that last point, I hope the Army in this case holds those theoretically responsible for security actually responsible, though that doesn't always seem to be our military's approach.

John Nichols in The Nation suggests, Call Joe Lieberman's Bluff; Have a Real Inquiry 11/10/2009. He's referring to HoJo's seeming desire to investigate Muslims in the military. Nichols' point is that an investigation of how the military treats Muslim soldiers and the various factors including multiple deployments that may contribute to acts like the Fort Hood massacre might actually be a positive thing, though not exactly what Lieberman is picturing.

I think Nichols is half-right. We not only need to know the actual circumstances around this killing. The military needs to take a new attitude toward religious extremism in the military, especially among the officer corps. One of the questions that needs to be officially asked in some is whether the extensive Christian fundamentalist proselytizing that the military allows in its ranks led the military to look the other way at signs of religious/political extremism among officers in general?

Conservatives are grousing that "political correctness" - which to them apparently means "white people having to get along with non-whites" - is the reason that the military isn't exercising more diligence over Muslim soldiers and officers. But if it is the case that the military has been carelessly overlooking signs of Islamic extremism, my guess is that the desire to look the other way at Christianist political extremism among officers is likely to have more to do with it than the "political correctness" bogeyman.

One of the legitimate criticisms made of the military is that even now, nearly 19 years after Saddam Hussein's Iraq invaded Kuwait and the US military buildup in the Middle East for the Gulf War started, the Army still has a limited number of fluent Arabic speakers in its ranks. It's conceivable - though this is pure speculation - that the need for Arabic speakers could contribute to overly-accommodating attitudes toward danger signs in some cases.

The US military is experienced at trying to cover up its own mistakes. If lax base security was involved in the Fort Hood shootings, or friendly fire deaths, or bad responses to danger signals about the shooting suspect Hasan, or general failures in the military being alert to religious extremism among the officer core, the Army's instinct is going to be to cover that up as much as possible. Doing so may serve Army officers' careerist goals. But cover-ups will also feed conspiracy theories about deadly networks or super-efficient Al Qa'ida sleeper cells hiding behind every corner.


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