July 10, 2013: The trial of U.S. Army major Nidal Hassan finally began on July 9th, four years after he carried out an Islamic terror attack that he is actually continuing. That is largely because he is representing himself at his trial, apparently so he can further publicize his belief that he was acting to defend Islam. In response, the U.S. government continues to insist that the Hasan attack had nothing to do with religion but was simply a case of workplace violence. Many of the 32 surviving victims of the 2009 attack in Ft. Hood are complaining, without success, that they are receiving less attention (and money) for their injuries because they did not get a Purple Heart medal because of the incident. The Purple Heart medal is the U.S. military award for combat wounds and it entitles soldiers to higher compensation and more prompt medical attention. The decision not to award Purple Hearts to the Ft. Hood victims is at the center of a controversy between politicians who are trying to play down the presence of Islamic radicalism in the United States and military leaders who want recognition for American troops killed or wounded by Islamic terrorism. While victims of domestic terrorism can receive the Purple Heart, the U.S. government has several times refused to categorize the November 5, 2009 attack in Ft. Hood as a terrorist action. It is expected that this will become even more difficult to defend as the Hasan trial proceeds.
During the 2009 attack Nidal Hassan, a psychiatrist and army officer, shot and killed 13 people at a clinic and wounded 32, all the while yelling "God is great" in Arabic. It was later revealed that Hasan had a long history of Islamic radicalism, which his army superiors ignored. In an apparent effort to not offend Moslems, the U.S. government refused to designate Hasan's murders as terrorism. As a result the victims of Hasan’s attack feel they have been betrayed multiple times. First by Hasan’s military superiors who did nothing when confronted with years of Hasan’s quite public radicalization. Then the victims were betrayed by Hasan himself, a military officer and physician who took oaths to protect his fellow soldiers. There is also the justice denied aspect, with American soldiers being prosecuted much more quickly if they kill civilians than Hasan is for killing Americans. The Hasan trial was delayed several times before it finally got started. Finally, the victims feel betrayed by their own government which, despite a post attack official investigation that found Hasan’s superiors guilty of ignoring clear signs of Islamic radicalization, now insist that Islamic terrorism had nothing to do with Hasan’s shooting of 45 people in an army health clinic.
This “is it terrorism” controversy has been going on for over two years. The latest round saw members of Congress introducing a bill that would force the Department of Defense to follow its own regulations regarding military victims of terrorist attacks and give the Purple Heart to the Ft. Hood dead and wounded. In response to this Congressional effort, the civilian leadership of the Department of Defense had a “position paper” prepared that opposed the new law on the grounds that it would deny the attacker a fair trial.
The U.S. Army has reacted in other ways to Nidal Malik Hasan's 2009 attack. Although this was obviously the act of an Islamic terrorist, the U.S. government sought, in the immediate aftermath of the attack, to explain it as just the act of a lone madman that had nothing to do with terrorism. But here is where the situation gets really bizarre. The subsequent investigations (army, FBI, and so on) of Nidal made it clear that this is what terrorist attacks often are. The investigations recovered communications between Hasan and other Islamic terrorists in which he was told that acting individually would still be “jihad” in the name of global Islamic domination. Meanwhile, the investigations also revealed that he had not made a secret of his beliefs and that many of his peers, subordinates, and superiors had complained about his Islamic radical beliefs and actions. But nothing was done because official government policy was to play down anything that could put Moslem military personnel, or Islam in general, in a bad light.
Eventually several officers were punished, or investigated, for their role in allowing Hasan to do what he did. But the army also realized that there were institutional problems, and these were addressed, at least on paper, with some new rules. First, the army is conducting more thorough background checks. Not just to catch actual or potential Islamic radicals but also gang members or radicals of any sort. This has already caught some questionable recruits and, based on the few who got into the news, kept some dangerous, although otherwise qualified, applicants out of uniform.
The army is also attempting to deal with the atmosphere of political correctness that underpinned most of the bad decisions that enabled Hasan to stay in uniform and even get promoted. In the army, as in any large organization, all the rules are not written down. In the army, many of the unwritten rules come in the form of "the commanders' intent." Sometimes this "intent" is spelled out, but in many cases subordinate commanders have to figure it out. In the Hasan case the commanders' intent was that Moslem officers, especially doctors, were to be kept happy and in uniform. When in doubt, look the other way, and hope for the best. In the case of Hasan, no one expected the guy to turn into a mass murderer. But, then, Hasan's superiors were encouraged to be optimistic about their Moslem problem child. So Hasan's radical rants and abusive behavior towards non-Moslems was, if not ignored, certainly played down. Commanders have now been ordered to pay attention to religious or political activities of their subordinates and sound off if radical or dangerous behavior appears to be in the works. This is a lot to ask from officers who know that some bad publicity not only makes the army look bad but damages career prospects of officers in the vicinity of the unpleasantness.
Would any of this have caught Hasan before he went at it with his murderous intentions? Probably. Hasan made no secret of his Islamic radical attitudes. Some of his fellow soldiers reported the threatening behavior but nothing came of this. Now, at least on paper, something should happen. But, already there are complaints about medical personnel being required to report troops who indicate potentially violent behavior. Civil rights groups are questioning whether the army can punish, or even investigate, troops exercising their constitutional right to free speech or practicing religion as they choose to. Commanders are caught between stopping another massacre or getting accused (especially in the media, which loves stuff like this) of violating the civil rights of soldiers and their civilian dependents living on base. Officers will be tempted to back off, rather than risk their career on a hunch. Commanders closest to the potential problem are supposed to pass their findings up the line, with the FBI now sharing this information. But the media will head for the source and the officers in the line of fire know it.