As the Western world rubs its eyes and blinks expectantly in the direction of a new decade, its distracted inhabitants would do well to reflect on an event that is unlikely to have graced many end-of-year lists at the close of 2009: the alleged killing of 13 people at Fort Hood, Texas, by US Army Maj. Nadil Malik Hasan.
The accused Fort Hood gunman (whose name continues to add flavor to the current ‘al-Qaeda’ headline feast) and his unanimous castigation is an episode that tells us much about the world we currently inhabit – and the disturbing shape of the decade to come.
Following the macabre events of November 5, 2009, it was inevitably Barack Obama who provided the benchmark reaction mirrored by his fellow leaders and the world’s press. “Obama called the wartime killings of American troops on their home soil ‘incomprehensible’,” CNN reported. “But he said the values the dead volunteered to defend will live on.”
In an equally de rigeur assessment, US criminologists described Major Hasan’s actions as those of a “loner and a loser” who had issues, problems, psychopathic behaviors.” The president, speaking at an official memorial service, concurred. “No faith justifies these murderous and craven acts,” Obama said.
On these (wearily familiar) terms, the Fort Hood massacre can be read as a senseless rupture from the natural fabric of US liberal democracy: an explosive, “incomprehensible” deviation from an otherwise purposeful, peaceful order. The gunman’s actions were, Obama gravely informed the watching world, an aberration – an inconceivable anomaly, a sad violation of a noble, civilized mission.
Such an “interpretation,” of course, is ideology at its purest. It is also a resonant indicator of the political reality of our present moment.
Far beyond the empirical shrapnel of what occurred that day – the eerie wreckage of 13 corpses, 30 woundings and countless shattered lives – Fort Hood provides a powerful illustration of the rigid parameters of acceptable public discourse on Western military power and its material effects.
Both the act and its aftermath stand as a potent example of Slavoj Zizek’s distinction between “subjective” and “objective” violence: violence which, on the one hand, is tangible, localized and shocking; and violence which, on the other, is systemic, all-pervading and rendered continually invisible.
Zizek calls us to “step back, to disentangle ourselves from the fascinating lure of this directly visible ‘subjective’ violence – violence performed by a clearly identifiable agent.” Instead, he argues, we must perform a much more important task: “We need to perceive the contours of the background which generates such outbursts.”
Such a willingness to perceive – and indeed examine – the “contours of the background” to the Fort Hood shootings is beyond the remit of our leaders and their dutiful corporate media – those persons who enjoy a virtual monopoly on reporting “the truth” of what occurs in the world.
Fortunately, there are those whose democratic ambition is truly without constraint.
Independent journalist Dahr Jamail’s interview with Chuck Luther, an Iraq veteran and former sergeant based at Fort Hood, should be read by all.
As Luther explains with succinct clarity, the US military’s ongoing refusal to make the radical policy changes necessary to properly treat soldiers exposed to secondary PTSD, along with continued attempts to mask the true number of suicides in the ranks – both at Fort Hood and elsewhere – all but guaranteed that the November 5 shootings would occur – and will occur again. (At least two soldiers at Fort Hood have attempted suicide since the massacre.)
“There will be more 5 November attacks on fellow soldiers, and they will likely be even more drastic,” Luther told Jamail. “Everybody has to outdo someone, so the next are likely to be worse. Violence breeds violence. I was trained to be very violent in combat as a scout … we killed or detained Iraqis before anyone else got there.”
Luther claims he had personally warned the Army’s chain of command that “dramatic changes” were needed before another attack by a soldier on fellow troops. His requests went unheeded. “Just in the last three days right here at Fort Hood, I’ve heard commanders tell soldiers they are full of crap and don’t have PTSD…. If we can’t implement these needed changes quickly and rapidly we are going to have more loss of life on US soil by soldiers killing other soldiers.”
Far from being “incomprehensible,” then, there is a powerful case to answer that the Fort Hood shootings are not only eminently understandable, but were entirely inevitable.
Though not, apparently, according to the frontman of the world’s most heavily armed power.
In sagely condemning the localized outburst of violence represented by the Fort Hood gunman, Obama’s official version of events – beamed unquestioningly around the world – renders entirely invisible the morass of suffocating violence which characterizes the daily realities of US soldiers. The president’s rhetoric is no less than an unbroachable absolute: not only can the event not be explained, it cannot be understood.
This is no mere interpretation. It is an instruction.
And it is most certainly accurate – within the coordinates of acceptable public discourse on Western military ambitions. Indeed, within a context which maintains that Western militarism and imperialism are fundamentally honest, benevolent, in fact peaceful notions, the killings are wholly inconceivable.
For Obama’s pronouncements, of course, also render invisible the wider role, purpose and effects of the greatest violence machine in existence: the United States and its military.
The power of this machine, as the great John Berger has written, is based on two threats. The first is intervention from the sky by the most heavily armed state in the world. (One could call it Threat B52). The second is of ruthless indebtment, bankruptcy, and hence, given the present productive relations in the world, starvation. (One could call it Threat Zero).
It is now, as it has always been, a crucial element of this power that its constitutional violences – from its role as the world’s principal aggressor, to its own internal, inevitable hemorrhages – not only pass without comment, but are naturalized and accepted as fundamentally necessary: that US imperialism be mutely acknowledged as a stabilizing force for the good of all humanity. In other words, a truth-reversal of the highest order.
“… the values the dead volunteered to defend will live on.”
This sublime vanishing act, performed dexterously by Obama, his predecessors and all the willing accomplices of Western capital, spans decades. (One might call it the ultimate poker face.) An astonishing, intractable vacuum in which the corpses of three million Vietnamese, one million Iraqis and countless thousands of displaced, maimed and economically asphyxiated souls are silenced. The playwright Harold Pinter has called it a “brilliant, even witty, highly successful act of hypnosis“: “It never happened. Nothing ever happened. Even while it was happening it wasn’t happening. It didn’t matter.”
This hypnosis is a constant, ambient drone in our society and daily lives – humming continuously and unchecked in the speeches, press conferences and threats which billow from our radios, televisions and newspapers. Its recurrent terms are: Democracy, Justice, Human Rights, Terrorism.
As Berger notes: “Each word in the context signifies the opposite of what it was once meant to signify.”
The ideological bombardment from our leaders and media – our daily spokesmen, our ordained truth-tellers – is as relentless as the carpet bombing and drone attacks visited on the defenseless millions of their scorched Eurasian playgrounds. It is of monstrous volume, yet barely audible. Of devastating consequence, yet never mentioned. Its primary effect is to permanently distract the powerless from recognizing, understanding or posing any form of challenge to the main structural drivers of our perilous geopolitical moment.
Sadly, much like the uniform unwillingness of our media to acknowledge (let alone question) this wholly false context, Obama’s absolutism represents the very antithesis of dialogue. For there is a further, even more stringent, dimension to the president’s words.
That the Fort Hood killings are “incomprehensible” is most certainly not an invitation to try to “comprehend” why an explosion of murderous violence might occur within the beating heart of the world’s most violent power. It is the reverse: the president’s statement signals the end of any such investigation before it can even begin – it precludes the very possibility of inquiry.
There is none, and can be none. For not only the answer, but the question itself, does not exist.
“The basic principle, rarely violated, is that what conflicts with the requirements of power and privilege does not exist.”
– Noam Chomsky