Thursday, August 29, 2013

29-Aug-13: Violence in the workplace, violence in the lexicon

US Medical Corps Officer, Major Nidal M. Hasan,
and the flag he swore to honor
Calling things by factual and appropriate names is such a basic part of life that you have to wonder what's really at stake when people and institutions stop doing it. The reason sometimes has to do with wanting to make people feel better and do better. We used to call municipal employees who do the essential work of removing refuse from the vicinity of our homes, offices and factories by basic and honest names like garbage collectors and waste men. Today, who doesn't call them sanitation engineers?

But we're not dealing here with constructive euphemisms. Our subject relates to what is happening in societies afflicted by acts of religiously-inspired hatred and terror. Yesterday's decision by a US military court to impose the death penalty on Major Nidal Malik Hasan puts the issue on our radar. 

The facts of the crime are not especially in doubt. Long before the guilty verdict, Hasan had admitted he shot dead 13 unarmed people at the Fort Hood Soldier Readiness Processing Center, among them three women including a 21-year old pregnant private whose unborn child also died. He wounded more than 30 others. Shouting “Allahu ­akbar!”, and directing his high-powered, high-capacity, laser-sight-guided handgun at soldiers undergoing medical checkups prior to deploying to Afghanistan, he fired off about 200 rounds before being stopped by military police. If not violently stopped, he would have kept firing and killing.

The shooter is a US-born army psychiatrist, the son of Palestinian Arabs who immigrated to the US from El Bireh. Today that's a city of some 40,000 people, located ten miles north of Jerusalem and a short drive from our home. Serving as his own legal counsel, Hasan confessed to being the gunman, presented no witnesses and declined to make a closing argument to the jury. 

What should we be calling the cold-blooded killings that he justified "as a way to protect Islamic and Taliban leaders from U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq" [source: USA Today]? For those parts of the news-reporting industry who have problems with the word terrorism - the precise and accurate way of describing the process in which Hasan engaged - there are less loaded descriptors and they are widely used in this story. "Rampage" [BBC, yesterday] for instance, and "shooting spree" [MSNBC yesterday]. 

Hasan: Convicted workplace murderer, and
Taliban flag
The Department of Defence and the Army have a definite view of what this was. They have persisted in describing the massacre at Ft Hood as an act of workplace violence. They are making considerable efforts to keep the word 'terrorism' far from the discourse. Why?
The official reasoning is that it would jeopardize the case because, as stated in a Pentagon memo, “defense counsel will argue that Major Hasan cannot receive a fair trial because a branch of government has indirectly declared that Major Hasan is a terrorist—that he is criminally culpable." That [however] has not stopped the government from calling the 9/11 attacks anything but terrorism. The 9/11 memorial at the Pentagon has on display the Purple Heart, the medal awarded to all the soldiers who were killed or injured there that day. [Michael Daley, in The Daily Beast, August 6, 2013]
This matters in more ways than one. A major Texas newspaper notes that the shootings are termed a an act of terrorism by the National Counterterrorism Center, the State Department and CIA director, among others. But when DoD and the Army call it workplace violence then, from the standpoint of the victims, that:
is an “irresponsible, indefensible breach” of our nation’s pledge to service members. It denies these victims cost-free VA health care for five years, as they would receive for combat injuries. It denies them cost-free counseling and critical mental health services. It denies them tax-free disability benefits and Combat-Related Special Compensation. It denies them eligibility for the Purple Heart and its related benefits. ["Editorial: Nidal Hasan's victims fell in combat, not mere workplace violence", Dallas Morning News, Aug 13, 2013]
Justice is denied more widely than that. The presiding judge ordered that prosecutors must not refer to the case of another American Moslem soldier, Sgt. Hasan Akbar. Akbar had attacked and killed his US military colleagues in a tent in Kuwait during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. He was court-martialed and is awaiting execution. Prosecutors wanted to depict Nidal Hasan's shooting attack as a "copycat". Doing so might provide a useful argument in future prosecutions of Islamist-minded members of the American forces who carry out future outrages against their colleagues (not that we think such things could or would ever happen again). But the judge held, according to Associated Press, that such material would cause "confusion of issues, unfair prejudice, waste of time and undue delay". Got that?

Prosecutors were also refused the right to introduce into evidence emails that, according to the FBI, Hasan had begun exchanging in December 2008 with the notorious Anwar al-Awlaki, a US-born Islamist preacher. (In fact, the FBI was aware of more than a dozen emails passing between Major Hasan and the Islamist preacher during the first half of 2009, but was reassured by a an army psychiatrist's view that Hasan’s beliefs "could be beneficial" to the military.) In fact, there are growing signs that the authorities had evidence in their hands before the murderous attack and could have done something, but did not. The Senate's Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee review, in a report well titled  A Ticking Timebomb: Counterterrorism Lessons from the U.S. Government’s Failure to Prevent the Fort Hood Attack, says US authorities had enough evidence to stop Hasan before he killed, but declined to act on it.

TIME's editors are unsure: Says 
more about TIME than about the events
at Ft Hood
A report on the website said earlier this week that an agent for the Defense Criminal Investigative Services, a law enforcement agency within the Pentagon that focuses on preventing fraud and crime among military personnel and contractors, was aware of the contact between Hasan and al-Awlaki. But that agent concluded that it was
for academic research and not terrorism-related. He did not bother to interview Hasan.
Naming and terminology are part of a larger and dangerous process that borders, in cases like this one, on self-delusion. Calling the attack of a highly motivated and well-armed individual an act of workplace violence ignores widespread systemic factors like incitement by preachers and a growing tolerance for certain kinds of hate speech directed at certain kinds of people. Might not other people, possessed of similarly powerful religious and ideological motivations and exposed to the same systemic influences  become, like Hasan the psychiatrist, well-armed and empowered to kill on a significant scale? Is this not something that ought to worry us? Is it an issue to ignore?

The trivializing label "workplace violence" sends a signal to society, to law enforcement officials, to those with responsibility in the workplaces of America and the world, that there is no larger picture here. So proceed with utmost caution if you plan to do something. If you view Hasan as part of something larger than himself, radical Islamism for instance, then don't (the message says). That guy went postal. One in a million. Workplace violence. It happens. Get over it.  Mark Steyn addresses this brilliantly in an essay yesterday about political correctness: "Still Nothing to See Here". Recommended. 

So here's our point. The message conveyed by the term "workplace violence" works as a lethal sedative, lulling worried citizens into a make-believe parallel universe where neighbours, colleagues, strangers on the bus and the psychiatrists among us can all be relied on to act benignly even when the evidence of something far more pathological stares us in the face.

How absurd is such Orwell-like reframing? How dangerous?
  • When the official spokesperson for the US State Department says to a media briefing that Palestinian Arab terrorists, convicted of murder and serving lengthy prison sentences, might be freedom fighters and political prisoners which is what the Abbas regime leadership calls them (we posted about that here two weeks ago) but she's not sure and needs to get instructions, there's a serious problem. If we're not clear on issues as basic as this, how can sane decisions be made about how to deal with convicted terrorists and their victims?
  • Calling unpleasant things by less unpleasant names is what euphemisms are about. But when they are spun by politicians and those who do their bidding, they become weapons in a cognitive war. Military spokespeople refer to “collateral damage” when non-combatants are hurt or killed in war. If they were more frank, less opaque, “civilian casualties” is what they would call them. In a world in which terrorism exacts a huge, unbearable and rising price, those victims of "collateral damage" are frequently said to have been "caught in the crossfire". This is nonsense. Terrorists want those innocent, uninvolved bystanders and passersby to be hurt or killed. No one is ever caught in the crossfire when the firing is done by terrorists.
  • In the specific context of what the terrorists do when they confront Israelis, there are years, decades, of circumlocution all calculated to conceal what the terrorists really do, what they really want. They are said to be engaged in "resistance" and "struggle" (sometimes termed "armed", sometimes not), seeking to "liberate" and to achieve self-determination. It's reminiscent of how mob violence in the era of the French Revolution was called "agitation" and "effervescence" but not “massacre” or “murder”. 
  • Particularly offensive to us is the term "suicide bomber". As widely used and accepted as it appears to have become, it conceals far more than it reveals, as most euphemisms do. No terrorist has ever exploded a bomb that took his own life because of a primary desire to suicide. It was always, always, about murdering other people. The expression "suicide bomber" should be thrown to the bottom of the deepest well and never recovered. It glorifies one of the most base forms of evil.
  • But few media tricks are more galling than the way the word "terror" in its various forms is itself being selectively eliminated from the discourse through measures like the BBC's well-documented policy [regulations here] to simply not use it. According to the world's wealthiest and best resourced news channel, terrorist as a word "can be a barrier rather than an aid to understanding... We should not adopt other people's language as our own; our responsibility is to remain objective and report in ways that enable our audiences to make their own assessments about who is doing what to whom." [BBC Editorial Guideline: Language when Reporting Terrorism]" And so on. Most of the time, they stick to it, except when they don't, which is exactly what happens when reality takes second place to actively managed perceptions.
George Carlin, the great and late, joked that people once used to get old and die but not any more. Nowadays they become pre-elderly; then turn into senior citizens; then pass away in a terminal episode or following a negative patient care outcome or in response to a therapeutic misadventure. The world is poorer with him gone. 

But with the greatest of respect (non-euphemistically, that would be: recognizing the utter foolishness of what people routinely do), it's not at all humorous when the authorities hijack our language in order to advance policies which, if they had to explain them, would be offensive, repugnant, dangerous to our well-being and unacceptable.

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