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The Futility of Background Checks

“There are two theories on hitting a knuckleball. Unfortunately, neither one of them works.”

—Charlie Lau, former major league batting coach

Immediately following the 2009 shootings at Fort Hood army base (located outside Killeen, Texas, the third largest military base in the United States), where 13 people were killed, and more than 30 others injured, I heard a self-appointed pundit on television weigh in on the tragedy by saying that what our government needs to do is “conduct more thorough background checks.” No shit.

And as horrific and mind-numbing as the June 12, 2016, shooting at the Orlando nightclub was, it has provoked some of the same comments in regard to background checks as the Fort Hood incident did, particularly after it was reported that the Orlando shooter, 22-year old Omar Mateen, had already “appeared on the FBI’s radar.” What??! You knew about this guy??! Why wasn’t he in custody?! If the FBI had done its job, 50 people would still be alive. No shit.

But as disturbing as the Fort Hood shootings were, they revealed something that was potentially even more unsettling. The killings demonstrated how unlikely it will be to prevent future bloodbaths from occurring, if we place our faith in background checks. Or interviews. Or counseling sessions. Or information supplied by well-meaning snitches in the workplace. (“I thought something bad might happen, because he’d been acting weird all week.”)

And this isn’t the result of our intelligence agencies not having enough “person of interest” data in their data banks. Indeed, the exact opposite is the case. We have too many “possible perps” in our files. Literally, millions of them. The guy in Yemen who bought a car from the brother-in-law of the guy who lived next door to a suspected Al Qaeda operative has his own file. By trying to be “extra thorough,” our intel people have buried themselves in minutia.

Let us consider what happened at Fort Hood, in ‘09. As convenient as it is to toss all mass murderers or terrorists into the same hopper, that methodology doesn’t always work. Unlike the 27-year old Timothy McVeigh, who was responsible for the Oklahoma City bombing, in 1995, the Fort Hood assassin, 38-year old Nidal Hasan, didn’t fit the mold. Not only was Hasan infinitely more complicated and accomplished than Timothy McVeigh, he was a whole different breed of cat.

For one thing, unlike McVeigh, Nidal Hasan, wasn’t a lowly enlisted man. He was an officer, having attained the rank of Major. For another, unlike McVeigh, who was a disgruntled ex-soldier, bouncing from job to job, including security guard, Hasan was still on active duty. And for another, not only was he a major on active duty, he was a licensed medical doctor.

But here is the real stunner—the irony of ironies. Not only was the murderous Nidal Hasan a major on active duty in the U.S. Army, as well as a licensed M.D., he was also a psychiatrist. An expert on mental illness. Despite having gotten some poor performance reviews along the way, Dr. Hasan was the guy whom military people sought out when they were having psychological problems.

So what’s the takeaway? What is the lesson to be learned? That we not only need to fear those, spooky, ideologically warped “lone wolves” that walk among us, but must also fear our military officers, physicians, and shrinks? If that’s the case, then we are more screwed than we thought possible.

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David Macaray is a playwright and author. His newest book is How To Win Friends and Avoid Sacred Cows.  He can be reached at dmacaray@gmail.com

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