Moving forward from the latest massacre, three narratives -- well, one of them is no more than the familiar, all-purpose shrug of experts, puzzled over yet another "isolated incident" -- are vying to explain what happened and set the direction of our future.
Is Major Nidal Malik Hasan, the alleged killer of 13 people at Fort Hood last week, A) a Muslim terrorist; B) a solitary guy who snapped; or C) a broken healer and victim of the misbegotten war on terror?
While the reality may be more complex than we can imagine, and ultimately unknowable -- and while national grief demands, at the very least, a refusal to jump to quick, convenient conclusions and politicize the tragedy -- no healing at all can happen without a simultaneous groping for understanding. Let our explanations, I pray, go deeper than the suspect's surname. And let them honor the facts of the matter.
Narrative A, certainly recorded history's oldest, is that our enemies are out there; they're merciless; and only righteous, unswerving resolve will defeat them. Because this narrative triggers our deepest fears, and because it promises a simple, direct route to full security -- kill them before they kill us -- and because it has an enormous feel-good component to it, as we free ourselves of our worst qualities by projecting them onto an enemy (real or imagined), its pull is enormous.
Not only that, the narrative of the lurking enemy certainly makes running a country a whole lot easier. It's promoted in some form by most if not all national governments and, of course, it pulsates at the core of our war economy, a.k.a., the military-industrial complex.
The killer's cry of "Allahu akbar" -- "God is great" -- before he started shooting, and his prior statements against the war on terror, push the enemy-within narrative. The twist or kink in the claim that Hasan is a Muslim terrorist, which has metastasized across the Republican right, with leakage into mainstream coverage, is that we're not doing the "clash of civilizations" thing anymore. Only unreconstructed Bush-era hotheads still want to purge the United States of Islam and continue wallowing in the uniquely evil quality of Islam's most extreme adherents.
Thus we have narrative B, which is mostly damage control. "The shootings at the Army's Fort Hood in Texas Thursday were an 'isolated incident,' according to military officials," ABC News reported shortly afterward. The Houston Chronicle concluded a story on the tragedy by quoting a random soldier at Fort Hood: "It's not a wake-up call," he said. "It's a reminder that in this world, terrible, terrible things happen."
Got that? It's not a wakeup call -- it's not an indication that significant policy changes must occur. It just happens, y'know. Think Oklahoma City. Think Columbine. Experts focus not on the system but on the killer's psychology. "The true irony of this situation is we have an individual who is a trained counselor of soldiers coming back from the war zone who himself became unhinged," said Raymond DuBois, a senior adviser with the Center for Strategic & International Studies, quoted in the Houston Chronicle. And the Washington Post reported a comment of Hasan's aunt: "He did not make many friends" and "did not make friends fast."
The picture of the loner emerges, and the discussion focuses on any "red flags" sticking out of Hasan's past behavior that could have clued authorities that he was a potential psychopath. Such a focus, down the narrow tunnel of one man's secret life, is a bottomless diversion from the context in which Hasan morphed from healer to killer.
There are numerous shards of data strewn across a man's life that can be gathered in the pursuit of both narratives, which of course have much in common. Both conjecture an enemy somewhere beyond the horizon of the known world, operating independently of the rest of us. Both have limited -- or no -- interest in self-awareness. And both expel the killer from human sympathy, if not the human race itself, at the point at which he either joined a terrorist cell or "snapped."
While it's hardly surprising that most mainstream coverage of the Fort Hood massacre would be a blend of narratives A and B, I was surprised at the extent to which narrative C -- which begins with the idea that the enemy is our own violent propensities, and that violence always begets more violence -- also figured, at least implicitly, into the commentary and reporting.
For instance, a New York Times story by Michael Moss and Ray Rivera ("At Fort Hood, Some Violence Is Too Familiar") detailed a long list of crimes and emotional breakdowns at the huge base since soldiers started coming home with serious PTSD: 76 suicides since 2003, a 75 percent increase in domestic abuse, a 22 percent leap in violent crime in nearby Killeen, Texas. Brad Knickerbocker of ABC News catalogued some of the recent "isolated" incidents of soldiers under intense combat stress killing either fellow soldiers or spouses. And Andrew Bast of Newsweek wondered whether the Fort Hood massacre was a harbinger of far worse to come, as the war in Afghanistan expands.
How many more innocents have to die, and kill, in "isolated incidents," I wonder, before we see their terrible connection?
Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. You can respond to this column at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his Web site at commonwonders.com.)
© 2009 TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.