Wake-up call

Published : Dec 04, 2009 00:00 IST

On the morning of November 5, he was caught on CCTV camera at a convenience store in Texas before he shot and killed 13 people and wounded 31 others at the Fort Hood military base.-AFP

On the morning of November 5, he was caught on CCTV camera at a convenience store in Texas before he shot and killed 13 people and wounded 31 others at the Fort Hood military base.-AFP

THERE are moments in our lives when we feel utterly inadequate and frustrated at our helplessness at wanton violence directed against innocent fellow beings. The shootout on November 5, at Fort Hood, Texas, when a psychiatrist holding the rank of Major opened fire indiscriminately inside the Army campus, the largest in the country, and killed 13 personnel, besides injuring 31, was one such moment. The killing of so many for no ostensible reason highlighted the emptiness of all that civilised living stands for and the impracticality of the message of those who espouse the cause of love towards the rest of humanity.

This kind of outrage is no doubt happening every other day in Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan. It happened in Mumbai last year. But Fort Hood looked somehow different to me. A few brave young Americans were just getting ready to leave the shores of their country on what was possibly a logical response to a call for patriotism. Their only fault if it could be labelled so was that they were present at aiming distance of a colleague who seemed to have lost his sanity, if only for a few moments.

It is still unclear whether Major Nidal Malik Hasan (39) of the medical wing of the United States Army was plain vile or just mad. In either case the incident was reprehensible, to put it mildly. Until credible conclusions are arrived at, the bizarre incident opens itself up to speculation. I choose to write on it because I believe it has valuable lessons for the whole world.

The focus first is naturally on Hasans family and educational background. He has West Asian origins, most probably Palestinian. His parents, both dead, were immigrants to the U.S., where Hasan was born. He has two brothers, one in Virginia and the other in Jerusalem. He joined the Army immediately after high school and much against the wishes of the family. The Army helped him to go to Virginia Tech from where he graduated. (This was where, a few years ago, a student with South Korean origins with a psychiatric problem killed so many for no reason whatsoever.)

Later, Hasan enrolled at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda (Maryland) and received his degree in psychiatry. He did his residency at the famous Walter Reed Medical Centre where he worked for a few years, before being posted earlier this year to the Damall Army Medical Centre, Fort Hood. This is undoubtedly a dream profile that can excite the envy of many who want to practise medicine in the U.S. Psychiatrists are in demand in that country and are prosperous by any standards. This is why it is difficult to comprehend what Hasan did.

It was by all accounts a normal Thursday morning, on November 5, when Hasan was caught on a closed-circuit television (CCTV) camera at a nearby convenience store that he frequented to buy some basic necessaries. The images now played ad nauseam over television showing him in his traditional attire, collecting coffee without displaying any sense of hurry. This was a few hours before he went to work and committed his mad act. The only parallel that I can draw is to the memorable photograph showing Dhanu standing with a garland near the rostrum at Sriperumpudur on the fateful evening of May 21, 1991, when she knew she was going to blow herself up within hours in a plot to kill Rajiv Gandhi.

Possibly, assassins steel themselves so much before their final act that they hardly betray emotions. This is why it is difficult to prevent diabolic crimes such as these, and a blame game would serve no purpose. It is safe to surmise that assassins, when acting alone on a personal agenda and not at the instance of a group, seldom talk and successfully manage to conceal their designs.

There are at least three theories floating around the Fort Hood massacre. The first of these is that Hasan was a fanatic who could not stomach all that the U.S. Army was doing in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many who had known him say that he was a devout Muslim who prayed several times. He was a regular at the Silver Spring mosque in Maryland for nearly 10 years when he lived in Virginia. He was learnt to be convinced that grievous wrong was being committed against Islam, and that he had to avenge it. Killing Army colleagues was one way of demonstrating his outrage.

Enquiries reveal Hasan sharing his resentment with some colleagues over operations in the two countries. Investigators have stumbled upon a few Internet postings in the name of one Hasan that were highly critical of U.S. operations abroad. (One entry read: If one suicide bomber can kill 100 enemy soldiers because they were caught off guard, that would be considered a strategic victory.) Whether it was Nidal Malik Hasan who wrote them or somebody else with his surname is yet to be ascertained.

According to a second speculation, Hasan had a number of grievances against the Army, the chief of which was an impending posting to Afghanistan or Iraq. He was totally against uprooting himself from the U.S. Having got wind of this, he was even contemplating quitting the Army or initiating legal action against the move to send him out to a combat zone. It is not known whether this was on the grounds of pure personal inconvenience or because he considered it unethical to aid a fight against fellow Muslims. In any case, he was opposed to going to either country as a member of the U.S. Army. There are also reports that Hasan had an unhappy relationship with a few of his colleagues, who allegedly needled him because he was a Muslim. Snide remarks on this score had caused him intense agony, and his suppressed anger possibly exploded in the form of the shooting.

There is a third interpretation of the incident that says it is the outcome of an extreme job-related stress. Workload as a psychiatrist in the Army of a country that is locked up in two major war zones is no childs play. It was not merely the numbers that seemed to have done in Hasan. It was the responsibility of having to listen to many soldiers returning from combat areas with so many tales of woe that in all probability proved too much.

It must be remembered that Hasan was a bachelor with no one close enough to share his emotions. Also, however ludicrous it may appear, according to some psychologists, psychiatrists are not immune from stress-related mental illness, and Hasan was in all likelihood a victim of the demands of a highly complex workplace, who took out his frustrations and misgivings on others.

As I write this, Hasan is still in hospital recovering from the injuries sustained when a local woman police officer who intervened during the incident shot him. In all probability he will recover soon and be well enough to be questioned. Until then every fact relating to this will be a matter of conjecture. The greatest worry to U.S. law enforcement agencies is whether Hasan had terrorist connections. Until now there is little to suggest anything to this effect.

Defence establishments and police agencies the world over will do well to study Fort Hood seriously. The foremost of the problems of personnel management confronting them is how to keep tabs on what employees are doing outside their jobs. This has become a very serious problem now, because there are hundreds of terrorist groups prowling around to rope in new recruits. When religion comes to play a role in their manoeuvres, authorities are at a loss to counter such an influence without offending sentiments and sensitivities.

The U.S. Army has about 2,000 personnel who have professed Islam as their faith. A safe bet is a large majority of them have no problem fighting in Iraq or Afghanistan. But what about the handful who have reservations, but conceal them and are waiting for an opportunity to demonstrate their resentment. Do they view Hasan as a hero or just a freak who need not necessarily be emulated but ignored? It will be interesting to watch how the U.S. Army leadership is going to tackle this issue of collecting intelligence on its soldiers without ruffling feelings.

Next comes the need to tighten physical security at huge defence establishments. Hasan brought in two firearms into the centre without difficulty. As a mere psychiatrist, was he entitled to this privilege? If he did have, what kind of supervision is in place to ensure that these are not misused? Does the answer lie in imposing sweeping regulations banning weapons in the hands of non-soldiers who are just support staff? Possibly such an embargo on carrying weapons in non-combat zones is sensible and not impractical. The final question is one of extending psychiatric help in defence forces to those who need it. This is an arrangement that calls for logistics and greater investment.

According to one report, the U.S. Army has only about 450 psychiatrists to take care of 550,000 active personnel. The magnitude of the workload on each psychiatrist can be gauged from these figures. I would be interested to know how Indian defence forces are handling this. I know the Indian police have neglected this for ages.

This is no longer wise because of the growing operational risks, especially those in the naxalism-affected States and in several other zones where police casualties are mounting. It may be a cliche to say that Fort Hood is a wake-up call to the Indian defence and police leadership. They cannot ignore this in the context of Fort Hood.

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