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The Government is Our Teacher

“Our government is the potent, omnipresent teacher.”

At his death sentencing in 1997 Timothy McVeigh, the infamous Oklahoma City bomber, spoke words that every American should take to heart when confronted with violence perpetrated by US veterans.  Quoting Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, McVeigh stated, “Our government is the potent, omnipresent teacher.  For good or ill it teaches the whole people by its example.” In 1995, McVeigh, a decorated Gulf War veteran, who a comrade referred to as “the best soldier I met when I was in the Army”, carried out the largest terrorist act on US soil pre-9/11.

Unfortunately, many US veterans like McVeigh have used skills and training acquired in the military to kill fellow Americans. The latest is Ian David Long, a former Marine allegedly responsible for a shooting in Thousand Oaks, California that left 12 people dead.  Although authorities will search for motives, it is likely they will dismiss Long’s own words, as McVeigh’s have been ignored.  Reportedly, in a Facebook post before the attack, Long wrote: “I hope people call me insane… (laughing emojis).. wouldn’t that just be a big ball of irony? Yeah.. I’m insane, but the only thing you people do after these shootings is ‘hopes and prayers’.. or ‘keep you in my thoughts’… every time… and wonder why these keep happening…”

If Long’s and McVeigh’s indictments fall on deaf ears, perhaps the words of a Marine Corps Pastor who served with Long in Afghanistan will carry more weight.  The pastor, Thomas Burke, stated, “We train a generation to be as violent as possible, then we expect them to come home and be OK. It’s not mental illness. It’s that we’re doing something to a generation, and we’re not responding to the needs they have.”

Two shootings in 2017 epitomize this dangerous trend. In January Esteban Santiago, an Iraq War veteran, killed five people at the Ft. Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.  The following June John Robert Nuemann, Jr., an Army veteran, killed five employees at his former workplace in Orlando before killing himself.  As police searched for motives, they did not turn to McVeigh’s words and question what role US military training had in the tragedies.  How many more US veteran mass shootings and suicides must Americans endure before this basic question is asked?

As Pastor Burke noted, veteran shootings happen too often to place the blame solely on “loners” with mental illness.  Consequently, the investigative mirror needs to be turned on an American culture of violence exacerbated by continuous war since 2001. The legacy of the Bush and Obama Administrations’ active bombing of seven countries, the public’s passive acceptance of torture, and the militarization of the police combined with high levelsof veteran Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and the open sale of automatic weapons, means that Americans should expect more mass shootings by veterans.

An uncomfortable reality is that perpetual war and military training are at least partly responsible for some of the highest profile shootings and terrorist acts in US history.  After all, it was Lee Harvey Oswald, a Marine sharpshooter, who the US government alleged got off three incredible shots from the Texas School Book Depository in Dallas in November 1963 that killed President John F. Kennedy.  The US special forces had been involved in Vietnam for six years by that time.

And what of the training that young Americans received to fight in Vietnam?  Charles Whitman was a US Marine trained sniper who in 1966 turned his weapon on fellow classmates at the University of Texas, killing 16 (including a head shot to a baby still in its mother’s womb).  Perched in the UT Clock Tower Whitman made kill shots from 500 yards.  Before embarking on his killing spree he killed his wife and mother. The 50th anniversary of that tragic day passed on August 1, 2016, the same day that the University of Texas began allowing students to carry weapons on campus.

Also, have we forgotten the terror that John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo unleashed on the greater DC area in October 2002?  Muhammad, a US Army trained marksmen, and his partner Malvo, killed 10 people while terrorizing millions.  Their shooting spree epitomized the physical and psychological power that terrorists have as they shot people going about daily tasks like pumping gas or shopping.

In another high profile veteran shooting, Micah Johnson, killed five police officers in Dallas in July 2016.  A New York Times headline spoke to the detrimental impact military training can have on veterans like Johnson: Micah Johnson, Gunman in Dallas, Honed Military Skills to a Deadly Conclusion.

Johnson, like McVeigh, was a psychopath.  But McVeigh’s pathology did not stop him from rationally spelling out the reasons he took his actions.  For example, he claimed that he was awarded medals for killing enemy Iraqis but was a villain at home for fighting against a Clinton government he perceived as a threat to the Republic.  McVeigh was a Christian from Upstate New York radicalized by the destruction wrought by the US military in Iraq in 1991, especially on the “highway of death”.  The Waco Raid in 1993 that saw the FBI firebomb David Koresh’s compound, killing the radical preacher but also innocent women and children, pushed him over the edge. McVeigh stated, “[his] bombing was a retaliatory strike; a counter attack, for the cumulative raids (and subsequent violence and damage) that federal agents had participated in over the preceding years (including, but not limited to, Waco).”

Given the spate of shootings by veterans trained for perpetual war since McVeigh’s execution in 2001, it is clear the US government and media have ignored his warning. It is time to soberly consider the impact that 17 years of war have had on soldiers tasked with projecting US military might across the globe.

Even a brief public examination of the impact of training and war on veterans may help us better understand the roots of the attacks referenced above that, although separated by 50 years, share one fundamental fact: the perpetrators were trained by their teacher, the US government.

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Dana E. Abizaid teaches European History at the Istanbul International Community School.

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