07 November 2009

Pop goes the weasel

There are more strands and trains of thought that could be followed from military psychiatrist Nidal Malik Hasan and the Fort Hood shootings than I could begin to count, never mind pick up and examine. I have no great urge to pursue the obvious ironies. The perennial imbalance of concern between western lives (whether thirteen US at Fort Hood, five British a few days earlier at Shin Kalay, or any other) and eastern ones (tens of thousands, uncommented) is not for this moment. The reflex to condemn Islam for harm done by one Moslem (though not to credit it for any good done by others) while separating individual from religion when the perpetrator is Christian, Jim Putnam has compellingly highlighted already.

One aspect which catches at me and holds me is one which may or may not be true, but nevertheless stands as an example of something incontrovertibly true.

Hasan's aunt and cousin, before fear silenced them, asserted that he had been harassed and abused because of his religion, his name, his ethnicity. Whether that is true or not, it is only too believable. It is very believable to anyone who has even fleetingly observed the canteen cultures of military communities (anywhere, of any nationality or culture). More than that, it is very believable to anyone who has seen how human beings behave in any closed community from campus to small town to workplace to neighbourhood to playground.

Within spatially constrained groups, as they get larger, our human urge to alienate "the other" turns inward and reaches pressure cooker levels. The other can be anyone who is different, in any way. Religion will do. Ethnicity will do. An unusual name, a weight problem, different opinions, just a quiet and inward nature, will do.

Whether or not Nidal Malik Hasan had been harassed and abused because of his religion, his name, or his ethnicity, it is certain from his actions on Thursday 5th November that he was, for whatever reason and by whatever mechanism, alienated.

To suggest that an alienated individual will automatically go postal and top the nearest random group of passers by is as grossly ludicrous, inaccurate and unfair as to make the same assumption on the basis of religion. People suffer alienation every day, in their thousands and millions, and never take it out on anyone else. I see two of my students, currently, being subtly victimised by their peer group, and neither of them will hurt a fly in return, never mind stage a Columbine or a Dunblane.

But: when an explosion does occur, there are two important differences between religion and alienation. Unlike religion (or ethnicity or name or sexual orientation or any number of other factors), alienation to the point of fracture lies, one way or another, behind every such explosion. And unlike religion, or ethnicity, or whatever, alienation is created by us: we, the populations around the alienated perpetrator, the ones who supply her/his victims, are also the ones who all too often create the alienation. And we are the ones who could stop doing so; but blaming religion, or ethnicity, or something intrinsic to the other, is so much easier.

As long as we create broken people, we will suffer the consequences.

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