It is an understatement to say the recent massacre at Fort Hood, Texas is a horrible tragedy. Pundits have said much about the alleged shooter, Army psychiatrist Nidal M. Hasan. And they will likely say a great deal more about his motives, his state of mind, terrorism, and al-Qaeda.
I knew it wouldn't be long before the usual suspects would be rounded up, and the discussion would degenerate into a talk about Islamic extremism and purging Muslims from the military. Hate crimes and scapegoating of the Arab-American and Muslim-American communities are the unfortunate consequences in such an environment. All of America's young white male ex-marines did not bear responsibility for Timothy McVeigh and his bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, so why should the Muslim community shoulder a burden that does not bear their name?
We should be concerned that at this tragic moment, society will miss a unique opportunity to address the effects of war, and the problems of violence and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The National Institute of Mental Health defines PTSD as "an anxiety disorder that can develop after exposure to a terrifying event or ordeal in which grave physical harm occurred or was threatened. Traumatic events that may trigger PTSD include violent personal assaults, natural or human-caused disasters, accidents, or military combat." PTSD can cause many symptoms, such as flashbacks, bad dreams, difficulty sleeping, depression, emotional numbness, and feeling "on edge".
Secondary trauma involves the emotional and psychological effects of working with traumatized people. Therapists, social workers and others who associate with victims of violence can develop symptoms of PTSD. As for an Army psychiatrist such as Hasan, listening to the horrific war stories of his clients on a daily basis must have taken its toll.
As Sandra Bloom and Michael Reichert point out in their book, Bearing Witness: Violence and Collective Responsibility, we live in a violent culture that promotes trauma and organizes around trauma. Sadly, we pass that trauma to the next generation, and create a vicious cycle of violence. And society is like the psychiatric patient who must hit rock bottom and show life threatening symptoms before crying out for help. "Our entire culture is doing the same thing--manifesting such extremes of pathology that we can no longer deny that something is pervasively wrong," the authors suggest. "We manifest this cry for help in our rate of firearm deaths, crimes of violence, and in the epidemic of child-on-child assaults."
In a nation where Columbine-style school shootings are virtually commonplace, and aggrieved employees "go postal" and mow down their coworkers as a matter of course, Hasan is by no means alone. And as a repository for violence, the military is not dealing with untreated mental illness among its ranks. That Hasan was a mental health professional underscores the military's failure to deal with a widespread problem.
PTSD afflicts 300,000 veterans from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, perhaps as many as 15% of returning soldiers. Yet, many do not receive the medical treatment they need. Last year there were 128 confirmed suicides by army personnel and 41 by marines, the highest on record. The suicide rate among soldiers in Iraq is five times higher than in the Persian Gulf War, and 11% higher than during Vietnam. In fact, the military suicide rate is higher than the overall U.S. rate, the first time since Vietnam.
Further, stress-related homicides by soldiers-- at home and abroad, active duty and after they return home--amount to a crisis situation that does not receive the attention it warrants. Crime has been on the rise on military bases since 2003, according to a recent U.S. Army study. The study also found that soldiers who experienced more combat, and whose units sustained more casualties, had a higher risk of developing mental illness, criminality, and conduct problems.
Prisons are repositories for the mentally ill that eschew rehabilitation and treatment. Consequently, these institutions create sicker people and better criminals in the process. Above and beyond the inherent madness, violence and criminality that institutions of war already represent, the U.S. military seems to assume a similar role. And the ticking time bomb originates not from the jacket of an al-Qaeda suicide bomber, but from within the ranks of the U.S. armed forces.
In the aftermath of Fort Hood, more time spent on gratuitous anti-Arab and anti-Muslim scapegoating is more time that PTSD is not addressed among veterans and active-duty personnel. Additional Fort Hoods are in waiting. However, the larger issue is that society must deal with the mental health effects of trauma and violence--not only on the battlefield, but at home on the streets of America. Violence begets violence, and war is terror, whether it occurs in Iraq, Afghanistan, North Philly, East L.A. or Chicago.
David A. Love is an Editorial Board member of BlackCommentator.com, and a contributor to the Progressive Media Project and theGrio. He is a writer and human rights advocate based in Philadelphia, and a graduate of Harvard College and the University of Pennsylvania Law School. His blog is davidalove.com.