There are lots of places to start looking if we want clues as to what happened yesterday at an Army base at Fort Hood, Texas. One obvious clue is Virginia Tech. We know that Army Maj. Nidal Malik Hassan, among the perpetrators of the largest shooting at a military base in U.S. history, graduated from the college where another massacre took place.
There are striking similarities between the modus operandi in both cases: 32 people were gunned down at Virginia Tech with many wounded, both perpetrators were non-Caucasian, both appear to have had murder/suicide as part of their game plan. While Hassan was born in Arlington, his complaints about religious discrimination in the Army could only have made him feel like a pariah, or outsider. Indeed, both the Virginia Tech and now the Fort Hood shooters were outsiders doubtless angry about being on the outside.
It is entirely possible that Hassan took his cues from the massacre at his alma mater and there is little room for coincidence in the similarities between the two crime sprees.
But, ultimately, what happened at Fort Hood had little to do with the 2007 debacle at Virginia Tech. To really know what happened to Hassan, we will have to know why he was being deployed to Iraq later this month, and whether he was to work with those suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, as reported, or whether he was called upon instead to combine his considerable psychiatric expertise, eight years at Walter Reed, with his knowledge of Arabic to serve in an intelligence capacity.
Simply stated, was Dr. Hassan, a devout Muslim, being sent to Iraq to work with U.S. interrogators as a sort of liaision between the American military and Iraqi detainees? We know that Hassan didn’t want to deploy, and that he felt strongly about it. What we don’t know is why. For another clue, we might want to consider a soldier who was also a psychology major, fluent in Arabic, whose career ended in violence, Alyssa Peterson.
Peterson, a U.S. Army Specialist, received her Arabic language certification, and served with the 101st Airborne in Iraq. She was an enlistee, a career intelligence officer, whose concentration was interrogation techniques. She found herself part of black ops, expected to participate in a clandestine operation in what we now know to have been so-called “alternative enhanced interrogation techniques” which she refused to do.
While the Army has denied it, sources close to Peterson say she was so deeply despondent about what she witnessed at the detention camp in Iraq that, on September 15, 2003, she was found with a bullet wound to her head, a victim of what the Army euphemistically called “non-hostile weapon discharge.”
Like Hassan, Peterson was deeply religious. She was a member of the Church of Jesus Christ Latter-Day saints. Within days of taking her life, she was placed on suicide watch after refusing to participate in interrogation sessions at the airbase on the Syrian-Iraqi border, interrogations which she believed involved the torture of Iraqi prisoners.
One must look to Alyssa Peterson only for clues not for answers. Answers won’t come fast, and they won’t come easily, but the place to start is what were Hassan’s exact duties with the Army, why was he being sent to Iraq, what were his duties going to be in Iraq, and did his knowledge of Arabic, as well as his Islam faith have anything to do with the mission the Army had in mind for him?
Though, unlike Alyssa Peterson, Army Maj. Nidal Malik Hassan was not a trained career intelligence officer who specialized in interrogations, could he have found himself in much the same circumstances as a young Christian enlistee before him?
And, as one of Middle Eastern descent who strongly opposed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, if called upon to participate in interrogation sessions, using what to him might constitute dubious interrogation techniques, what happened at Fort Hood today may well have been a deranged response to a righteous concern.
The Iraq war may someday come to be known as the longest covert war in history. Most wars have a secret component, but this war has been doused with secrecy. There are contract mercenaries fighting side by side with a volunteer civilian army, the press has been neutralized by the Pentagon, and the broadcast media chooses to cherry pick which videos to display that best spin their side of the story. The decision to focus on the depraved acts of one individual, rather than systemic failure, will someday be seen as the most deadly decision of all.
JAYNE LYN STAHL is a widely published poet, essayist, playwright, and screenwriter, member of PEN American Center, and PEN USA.