From Charleston to Fort Hood

The contrast in presidential response.

Dylann Roof, 21, has been arrested and charged with shooting nine people at the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, on June 17. The response of president Barack Obama marks a contrast from the Fort Hood massacre in 2009.

In the wake of Charleston, President Obama issued a lengthy statement expressing “our deep sorrow over the senseless murders,” adding “any shooting involving multiple victims is a tragedy.” The FBI, the president said, is opening a “hate crime investigation.” And it was “important for the American people to come to grips with it, and for us to be able to shift how we think about the issue of gun violence collectively.” That differs substantially from the president’s response to Fort Hood.

On November 5, 2009, U.S. Army major Nidal Hasan gunned down 13 unarmed men and women, including Francheska Velez, a 21-year-old private who pleaded for the life of her unborn child. The Muslim major killed two other women that day along with 10 men, more than twice as many victims as the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993.

Hasan also wounded 33 others, including Sergeant Alonzo Lunsford, who played dead then fled the building. Major Hasan chased down Lunsford, an African-American, and shot him seven times, including one bullet in the back.

Major Hasan yelled “Allahu akbar,” as he killed, but that was not the only indicator of his motives. He called himself a “Soldier of Allah” and had been emailing terrorist Anwar al-Awlaki about the prospect of killing infidel American soldiers. The U.S. security establishment was well aware of the communications but did nothing to stop Hasan, who claimed to be acting on behalf of the Taliban.

In a White House Rose Garden press conference shortly after Hasan’s attack, President Obama said he had met with FBI director Robert Mueller and the relevant agencies “to discuss their ongoing investigation into what caused one individual to turn his gun on fellow servicemen and women.” But the president himself wasn’t sure. “We don’t know all of the answers yet,” he said “and I would caution against jumping to conclusions until we have all of the facts.” All told, the tone was more of a warning than a lamentation.

In reality, the Fort Hood facts were every bit as evident as in Charleston, doubtless more so, and as Commander in Chief, the president would have prime access. And as Rod Steiger said in In the Heat of the Night, they had the bodies, which were dead. Hasan had done everything but take out an ad on the Super Bowl to announce his intentions. His motive was to kill infidels on behalf of Allah, and from the start he was unrepentant.

The president’s reference to “his gun” was also of interest. Major Hasan had not used a military issue weapon but private legally purchased handguns. Yet the president did not call the Fort Hood massacre a case of “gun violence.” Rather, the official designation was “workplace violence,” as though Major Hasan had been a disturbed postal worker. Rudy Giuliani, mayor of New York on 9/11, cited this an example of “deadly political correctness.”

Major Hasan’s victims included African Americans, Hispanics, and non-Muslims. Yet in his November 2009 Rose Garden statement, the president said nothing of any “hate crime,” as he did following the Charleston murders. Republicans Devin Nunes and Rick Santorum have also called the Charleston murders a hate crime and terrorism. The Department of Justice is considering domestic terrorism charges for Roof, and South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, a Republican says that the murderer of nine “absolutely” should be put to death.

Meanwhile, in August of 2013 a panel of 13 military officers handed down a death sentence for Major Nidal Hasan, but the sentence has not been carried out and may never be. The U.S. military has not executed an active-duty soldier since 1961, a span of more than half a century. The appeal process is lengthy and the final call goes to the President of the United States. And the current occupant of the White House did not see Hasan’s mass murder as terrorism, a hate crime, or even gun violence.

The comparison between the Fort Hood and Charleston cases will be ongoing. The ultimate test may not be what authorities choose to call the crime, but which mass murderer gets to preserve his own life.

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