Monday, March 11, 2013

Fort Hood & Terrorism

On November 5th 2009, Major Nidal Malik Hasan allegedly perpetrated the worst mass shooting to occur on a United States military base when thirteen people succumbed to their bullet wounds in the Soldier Readiness Processing Center at Fort Hood. At the time of the attack, Hasan had been in the Army over twenty years and served as a psychiatrist. He is currently awaiting trial for the murders.
In the aftermath, several of those involved have joined a class action lawsuit against the Army seeking $70 Million in compensations for the government’s failure to prevent the tragedy citing “willful negligence prompted by political correctness.” One of the most powerful grievances is that the Department of Defense has refused to classify the incident as a “terrorist attack,” instead choosing to classify it as an act of “workplace violence.”

This distinction is important since this would allow victims and their families to receive combat benefits in addition to the routine medical benefits available to all service members. The argument is a convincing one: Hasan was a practicing Muslim who reportedly shouted “Allah Akbar!”  before commencing the attack. Furthermore Anwar al-Aulaqi, who recruited for Al Qaeda and was later killed in a targeted drone strike, praised the attack and cited e-mail communications between himself and Hasan as proof of their collaboration. The DOD and the FBI insist that Hasan acted alone without external direction of any kind.

This is a complex situation due in no small part to how one defines a terrorist attack. If the parameters we set forth must include indiscriminate mass American casualties perpetrated by someone with a religious motive, then a very convincing case could be made that this was indeed a terrorist act. However, these very same parameters would exclude incidents like the Oklahoma City bombing where the perpetrators had only political motivations. Simply including political motivations is just as rudderless since a political view being nefarious or heroic tends to evolve with time and perspective. (We revere George Washington now, but the Americans on the other side of the Whiskey Rebellion saw themselves as rescuing the country from a tyrannical president overstepping his constitutional powers.)

Since most reasonable people could agree that the simultaneous murder of 168 US citizens should easily qualify as terrorism, we are then forced to drop the “religious” or “political” prerequisite leaving us with only the “indiscriminate mass American casualties” aspect. Of course, we must immediately exclude any loss of life that occurred during a war or ongoing US military operation since that has its own designation and we are left with only the infinitely murky realm of personal motivation to define a terrorist.

It is this very ambiguity that lends The Patriot Act its immense power and allows government agencies to circumvent the due process of an American citizen simply by designating them a “terrorism suspect” in an ongoing investigation. If we cannot agree on what constitutes a terrorist, then why should we allow that classification to weaken a person’s protection under the Fourth Amendment? Depending on who you ask, a terrorist could be anyone from Charles Manson to a low-level pot dealer.

More to the point, a 1950 Supreme Court ruling gives the military immunity from lawsuits seeking compensation for “injuries incurred in the armed services.” The same ruling was most recently invoked by the justice department to dismiss Cioca v. Rumsfeld, a class action suit representing 28 plaintiffs who were sexually assaulted by fellow soldiers while on active duty. The judge ruled that even rape is covered as a hazard of American military service.

Legal precedent aside, each and every victim should be given the utmost support and care by the country they defend. Should that care go above and beyond what a soldier injured on the battlefield qualifies for simply because it was perpetrated inside a domestic military installation by a fellow solider? That is the real question.

I would agree that there were warning signs as to Hasan’s mental instability as we have several reports of colleagues at Walter Reed Army Medical Center reporting he suffered from “paranoia” and other schizophrenic tendencies, but leaving them unaddressed as a result of “political correctness” is tougher to prove. This is especially true since Hasan didn’t even bother to identify himself as Muslim on Army paperwork and we have over 3,000 service members who do openly identify themselves as Muslims serving honorably.

It is abhorrent that any soldier should have to fear for his or her own safety while on a US military installation, and I am not sure that the 60-year old statute doesn’t need some updating. That being said, if this lawsuit meets the same fate as Cioca v. Rumsfeld perhaps we can take some solace in the fact that our legal system is adept at fairly applying an unfair doctrine.

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