AWOL Army private Naser Jason Abdo, a Muslim, has been arrested for plans to attack the Fort Hood Army base in Texas. Two years ago, another Muslim American soldier was arrested for killing 13 people at that base. These and other mass shootings and attempted acts of mass violence have increasingly made the news in the last few years, and the pundits typically have political lessons to teach in their wake. Now is a good time to ask a few questions they will likely neglect.
1. What is terrorism?
Rep. John Carter of the House Army Caucus celebrated the capture of Abdo thusly: “[W]e may well have averted a repeat of the tragic 2009 radical Islamic terror attack on our nation’s largest military installation. ”
Is an attack on a military installation terrorism? How about the attacks on the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983 — were those an act of “terrorism, ” as the U.S. government said they were?
Surely this is a strange definition, because it would seemingly make all warfare, even the most traditional warfare pinpointed against military targets, “terrorism, ” and the U.S. government, and presumably Congressman Carter, wouldn’t agree with that. It would mean every U.S. war was terrorism — even when it was targeted specifically at army bases and military personnel.
Some definitions of terrorism favored by the U.S. and other governments define terrorism as a private act, and yet in the years since 9/11, we have heard over and over again about “state-sponsored terrorism. ” If Saddam Hussein ’s government and the Taliban are capable of terrorism, and terrorism does indeed include attacks on military bases, surely the U.S. government can be guilty of terrorism.
Yet even if we include states in our analysis, terrorism is better defined as targeting civilians with the purpose of bringing about political changes. Under this sensible definition, Abdo and Nidal Hasan, the man implicated in the Fort Hood attacks two years ago, would be harder to describe as terrorists, since their primary targets appear to be military. On the other hand, such actions as the U.S. bombing of Hirsohima and Nagasaki and the U.S. sanctions on Iraqi civilians throughout the 1990s would be textbook cases of state-sanctioned terrorism.
When the Norway shootings occurred on Friday, July 22, many jumped to call it terrorism. When the alleged shooter was revealed not as an Islamist but as an anti-Islamist, some conservatives switched to calling him an extremist. Liberals, in contrast, sometimes throw the word “terrorism ” around to include rightwing “extremists ” who have never lifted a finger against anyone — such as the Michigan militia members who were detained in March 2010 for their supposed plot to overthrow the U.S. government.
The definition of terrorism is incredibly tenuous and used to score political points. The Nazi regime called its enemies terrorists but never described its own actions as terrorism. The U.S. government ’s effective definition seems to be: “Terrorism is an act of violence, against either soldiers or civilians, whether conducted by private or state groups, so long as the violence is not approved by the U.S. government. ”
2. How do these people get through the military recruitment process?
The military supposedly employs the best and the brightest, and yet its screening process is rarely scrutinized when a member of the Armed Forces is implicated in an atrocity or serious crime. Neither the soldiers callously shooting at what turns out to be civilians in the Wikileaks footage from last year, nor the troops caught up in the multiple torture scandals throughout the war on terrorism, nor the numerous instances of soldiers returning from battle engaging in domestic crime, are ever noted as possible evidence that there is a problem with the military itself.
As the war on terror has slugged along, the military has lowered its standards to widen the pool of potential recruits. Americans have tired of these wars, and so we have seen stop-loss orders, the redeployment of soldiers multiple times after their terms expire, and dishonest practices adopted by recruiters on school campuses. The military has loosened standards to enlist illegal aliens and has waived rules against recruiting felons in tens of thousands of cases. CBS reported in 2009 that not only did female soldiers accuse male soldiers of rape in hundreds of cases that were never seriously investigated, but in numerous instances “moral waivers ” were used by the Army and the Marines to enlist convicts with felony rape and sexual assault on their records.
It should thus be no surprise that the U.S. government is so desperate for cannon fodder that those who are a bit mentally unstable even before heading into combat make the cut. The state lacks the means or incentives to carefully screen out dangerous people, even if such a process could be undertaken reliably. Let us remember that the first Fort Hood shooter, Nidal Hasan, was an Army psychologist.
3. Does the military itself breed violence?
The military is an institution in which the skills of killing are taught and the enemy is dehumanized. When soldiers and veterans resort to violence outside the battlefield, unapproved acts of torture, or terrorism, it is rarely regarded as possibly connected to the military culture itself. The most notable example of this was Timothy McVeigh, the convicted and executed Oklahoma City bomber, who was in the U.S. Army for several years, including a stint in the First Gulf War, where he later said he learned how to turn off his emotions. He considered himself a soldier at war with a U.S. government gone out of control, notably in its conduct in the Waco, Texas, standoff of 1993. Two years later, on the anniversary of the Waco fire, he bombed the Murrah building, seeing his crime as an act of war.
Yet although the connection should be obvious — an institution that instills into people the capacity to see other people as subhuman enemies to be killed is going to breed people with problems handling their violent impulses — it is never asked outright if the military, and especially its wars, encourage acts of violence. But as long as we are at perpetual war, living with a permanent warfare state, there will be more Abdos, Nissans, and McVeighs.
4. What can we learn from how he was caught?
A review board in the military recommended Abdo’s release from the Army as a conscientious objector in the spring, but his discharge was delayed after he was charged with possessing child pornography. He was then scheduled for court martial. Is it possible that by failing to let him out immediately and to deal with his criminal charges outside of the military system, the military exacerbated the problem and made his attempted attack more likely?
In any event, Abdo’s attack was reportedly preempted by “concerned citizens, ” including a gun dealer who alerted authorities about his suspicious behavior. Although we are supposed to think of gun dealers as irresponsible predatory merchants who will sell a weapon to anyone, and the military as a refined organization that find and neutralizes threats with precision, the opposite seems to be true in this case. With the entire military screening process, social infrastructure, and disciplinary system, it took old-fashioned cooperation between the community and local police to detect and cut short the threat. The actual Ford Hood shooter from two years ago, however, succeeded in murdering over a dozen people before he was stopped — reminding us that the illusion of military security exists even on the military ’s own bases. Had the rules of civil society and common sense prevailed at Fort Hood two years ago, one of the soldiers would have been armed and stopped the rampage. Instead, the shooting lasted for ten minutes before a civilian police officer shot and stopped Hasan.
The media will spin the attempted attack on Fort Hood as a reason to embrace the war on terrorism, governmental efforts to stop threats through psychological profiling, and maybe stricter gun control. Instead, we should consider the many political sacred cows that this instance should bring into question.