Published on Saturday, November 23, 2002 in the Sacramento Observer
Killing Isn't Witnessed Just By War Heroes Anymore
by Farai Chideya
This is what terror feels like. A year ago, after 9/11, we asked why they hate us. Today, we ask why we hate ourselves.
On Oct. 28, a student at the University of Arizona shot and killed three professors and then killed himself. Robert S. Flores happens to be a Gulf War veteran, like John Allen Muhammad, the alleged Beltway sniper, and like executed Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh.
In interviews shortly before his death, McVeigh, speaking of Iraq, said, "What right did I have to come over to this person's country and kill him? How did he ever transgress against me?" He also said he became personally disillusioned with the opportunities he received after failing a test to join the Special Forces. By the age of 24, McVeigh was honorably discharged, disgruntled and dangerous.
Why did they do it? Flores is dead, and Muhammad isn't talking. At least one columnist has tried to blame Muhammad's spree on hip-hop. And while I'd hesitate to blame the military for producing these three killers, we should at least ask if their anger had any commonality. This whole country seems to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown, tracking terror-sprees on television and watching friends and family lose jobs. But, few people with free-floating anxiety turn towards murderous rage, or have the skills and weapons to act it out.
For Gulf War veterans, today's talk of war must seem like an unwanted flashback. Anna Quindlen's compilation of columns from the New York Times contains articles about the war buildup in 1990 that could have been written today. Military recruiters visit housing projects and farm-town high schools, not college-prep academies. Nineteen-year-olds who thought they'd entered something akin to a military jobs program ended up being sent, to their surprise, to combat.
In a theater recently, I saw an advertisement showing recruits climbing a virtual mountain of good deeds - helping feed poor people in other countries, planting the flag, doing everything but killing.
Packing up to leave your country is like cutting your umbilical cord. Yet, even as they left to fight, some Gulf War soldiers questioned why they were going to war. And then it was over, so very quickly.
Did Flores, Muhammad and McVeigh bring the war home with them?
We can't stomach what our veterans have seen. At the start of the "war on terror" last year, some newspapers refused to put pictures of dead Afghan civilians in their pages to avoid upsetting readers. Indeed. And how did the images upset the soldiers who saw the carnage? Whether veterans participated in actual combat or not, they surely knew what was going on at the front, on the burning roads.
Even in our violence-saturated culture, we gloss over the true face of death. Unlike some European networks, our television media show extended, almost reverent shots of bombs dropping, but not the dead bodies that bombing produces.
It's a soldier's job to kill without feeling. These rogue veterans, did they feel when they killed? Can we who sit and watch at home even feel anymore? On CNN, a witness to one of the Beltway shootings said, "It was like a video game."
A Japanese child psychologist once told me, "I feel sorry for children today. All they have is virtual emotions." Life equals video game. Death equals game over. Restart. Press play.
Farai Chideya is a journalist, columnist and author of "The Color of Our Future," and can be reached at email@example.com.