The following is an interview I originally published on New America Media's website. The horrific shooting Thursday at Fort Hood that claimed 13 lives and hospitalized another 30 people has set off a great deal of speculation as to why the alleged shooter, Major Nidal Malik Hasan, did what he did.
I spoke to former Marine Corps Cpl. Dave Hassan, who served in Iraq in 2005 and 2006. Hassan, an Egyptian American, said that while he was in Iraq, racist language was so pervasive that he began to use it himself.
When you heard that the shooter was an Arab-American major what was your reaction?
This is not going to end well. That was essentialy my first reaction. I don't know if the guy did it or not but assuming that this guy did do it, somebody who shoots a whole bunch of people ought to get punished for it, but in a broader sense, it's just going to fuel more of the anti-Arab racism that's grown up in the past decade or so. It's going to be fun for the rest of us. [laughs]
What about the fact that he was a psychiatrist?
He was probably treating guys with PTSD [post traumatic stress disorder] and there's a lot more overt racism in that crowd than there is in the rest of the military.
Talk about that.
Well, your average service member is not particularly racist and not necessarily more racist than your average American. But in order to go be involved with killing large [numbers] of other human beings, you have to dehumanize the enemy, and the easiest way to dehumanize them is to racialize them. In my experience, they're much more prone to talking about 'f** hajji's," if only "these f** hajjis wouldn't be here, this wouldn't have happened.'
But after you were deployed to Iraq, you used that language even though your family is Egyptian.
Oh, absolutely. I absolutely used those words. I didn't think anything of it. It was just a part of how you talked about the people who were in Iraq and it didn't even register that I was even talking about my own ethnic community until I started thinking about it after I got home. That was a little hard for me.
But it's just how you talk about Iraqis and Afghans. It's a word that's used for specific people in Arabic. It means someone who has completed a pilgrimage so it's a term of respect in Arab cultures. Now it's present at every level of the military chain of command, so everybody uses it. In the military, things stop because commanders want them to stop and that wasn't the case for that kind of language.
They're hajji's and you don't even think about the fact that it's a pretty racist term to be using it the way that we used it. And he [Hasan] would have heard a lot of it, because he was treating a lot of pretty angry folks.
And how was that day-to-day for you?
For me, it never went beyond the use of language. People would say, 'Why are hajjis wearing dresses all the time,' [talking about traditional Iraqi dishdash]. One or two of the officers that I had contact with would call me over and say 'Hassan, how come these hajjis want to be doing this?'
So thinking of all this were you surprised when Major Hasan opened fire at Fort Hood?
I was surprised that it was a psychiatrist that shot a lot of people. It's no longer surprising to me that returning veterans would kill a bunch of people. But this guy was a psychiatrist who hadn't been deployed, and he was also a major, which means he was in for a long time. If he had been at Walter Reed for a long time it was probably the first time that he had to think in detail about actually deploying to a foreign country and what that means. He would have been a lot closer to the 'action' there.