Even in the United States, land of diversity and individualism, there's still nothing like race and ancestry to imprison you in other people's dumbest assumptions and cruelest distortions.
An American -- American-born, American-bred, American-educated -- is suspected of having committed the mass killing that resulted in the death of 13 people at Fort Hood on Thursday. The killer joins the long list of other Americans who have committed mass killings, the second-worst of them in 1991 in the small central Texas city of Killeen, the after-hour shadow of Fort Hood. But the suspect this time has an Arabic-sounding name. Although it shouldn't, it changes everything. A mass murder, bad enough in itself, becomes cause for mass speculation studded with prejudice.
Arabs and Muslims in this country, already condemned to be each other's unwilling synonyms in too many Americans' eyes, are once again on the defensive, having to prove loyalty and love of country even though the only people who should be on the defensive are war-loving Americans who think they can offshore violence and national arrogance ("we fight them over there so we don't have to fight them over here," in the supremely insulting words of George W. Bush) without ever paying the consequences at home.
Nidal Malik Hasan is a 39-year-old Army major and psychiatrist. He was born in Virginia of Jordanian parents and schooled at Virginia Tech, among other places (site of the biggest mass killing in American history). He had spent the past several years counseling soldiers back to health after their deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan. Hasan's own deployment was reportedly pending. He didn't want to go.
All of that is speculative, as are the unfortunate implications of his name. It isn't simply mass murder in the United States when the alleged perpetrator, no matter what his motives may be, has an Arabic-sounding name. From the first reports on television through the next day's supposedly deeper analysis, there was a sulfurous undertone of inquisitions coursing through the reporting. It didn't matter that the military at Fort Hood quickly and admirably put to rest the possibility of a terrorist plot. This story was now in the hands of people like Shepard Smith, Bill O'Reilly, Anderson Cooper and Terry Moran, television doges to whom informing rationally and calmly is incidental to an instinctive craving for crisis. It was irrelevant that the actual crisis was over. Anxiety had to be stretched out, uncertainty manufactured, hours of coverage juiced up on the steroid of conjecture. And that's how misinformation mutates into perceived fact.
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"There may be more to this than we already know," went Smith. No, there wasn't. "It looks to me like there's something else involved here," was O'Reilly's characteristically inflammatory dig. "I don't want to speculate." But that's what he did all evening, repeating that same dumb assumption several times. Cooper wasn't much better once he got past noting that Hasan was an American, ranting on about his being a Muslim who may have defended the rights of Iraqis and Afghans -- inalienable, in fact -- to resist aggression, thus smearing Hasan by inference. Pat Tillman, the NFL star turned Army Ranger who was killed by his own troops in Afghanistan, thought the invasion of Iraq illegal. Should he have been investigated by the FBI? Moran came closest to a sensible description of Hasan: He was "one of their own" -- meaning a product of the U.S. military.
The reality is that what Hasan did is a more American act than anything else. Killeen, of all places, has a history of violence, the kind of violence that is more essentially American than Arab or Muslim, just as terrorism's ground zero in the United States, before the World Trade Center, was Oklahoma City. The 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building was the work of a quintessential American -- a former Marine, a hyper-patriot, a white-skinned, clear-eyed veteran who, somewhere along the way crossed that tipping point from ordinary oddball to murderous maniac.
A massacre is a massacre, whatever its motives, whoever its perpetrators. It is a terrorist act. But we live in a day of perverse distinctions between the familiar American kind of massacre and terrorism as the inaccurate synonym of Arab or Islamist violence. In a master-twist of historical distortion, terrorism has been remastered as an import from over there. Never mind that terrorism is an invention more patented by the West than by any other culture. The Fort Hood killer is a terrorist. But he is an American terrorist committing a characteristically American type of mass murder apparently provoked by American acts of aggression abroad.
There are no justifications here. Nor should there be false distinctions. The killings at Fort Hood are all of a piece with the horrifying routine of American violence at home and abroad. Nidal Malik Hasan is merely the link between the two that his fellow Americans would rather not see.