Language and the Media in Fort Hood

Below is an occasional post by Zoë H. Wool. Zoe is a doctoral candidate in socio-cultural and linguistic anthropology at the University of Toronto. Her dissertation is titled Emergent Ordinaries at Walter Reed Army Medical Center: An ethnography of extra/ordinary encounter. It focuses on the dialectic of the ordinary and extraordinary in the lives of soldiers who are marked by violence.

There is much to be said, and felt, about the shootings at Ft Hood on November 5th.

As a socio-cultural and linguistic anthropologist whose dissertation fieldwork was on a military base (I worked mostly at Walter Reed with a brief stint at Ft Dix), and who writes about the dissonance that emerges when discourses of the ‘war on terror’ and soldiers’ experiences collide, I’ve been feeling the need to say a few things myself.

I think we need to be paying close attention to the ideologies of language that are emerging in media coverage and online chatter about the apparent shooter, Maj. Nadal Hasan. Those who have been following the coverage will be aware that people are obsessed with how to name (or nominate) Hasan.

Call him Crazy

One set of names at stake has to do with being crazy.

In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, commentators rushed to the figure of the PTSD suffering soldier, invoking exactly the stereotype of the ‘crazy vet’ that Ken MacLeish has written about here, reinforcing the myth that PTSD makes people (or perhaps just soldiers?) kill other people.

As it became clear that Hasan had not been deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan and had not been in an active war zone, this category morphed into another one that, as far as I know, was newly coined: that of “secondary-PTSD” caused by the assumption of his repeated exposure to the first hand accounts of soldiers’ combat trauma while Hasan was working as a psychiatrist at Walter Reed.

As the night of the shooting wore on, and more information about Hasan found its way to news outlets like the New York Times, the category of mental illness took on another shape: Hasan’s supervisors at Walter Reed and at a Masters’ program at Uniformed Services University of the Health Science had apparently been concerned that he might be psychotic in some more run of the mill, non-service connected way.

The ‘T’ Word

There is also the parallel, and more heated, discussion about whether or not to call Hasan a terrorist. The cover of the November 23rd issue of Time Magazine which features Hasan’s face with “Terrorist?” across his eyes (which are rendered in negative) is perhaps the most iconic iteration of this question.

The question about whether or not to call Hasan a terrorist is not especially concerned with his motives (which is perhaps the only unifying thread of the plethora of definitions of terrorism I’ve seen). The ‘T’ word is on the table because of Hasan’s middle eastern sounding name and because he is a practicing Muslim. If you think this is too simplistic, imagine that his name was John Smith and that he was an Episcopalian, and ask yourself if the ‘terrorist’ moniker would have been on the tip of everyone’s tongue within hours of discovering these facts (though, come to think of it, if he was John Smith we probably wouldn’t even have found out that he was Episcopalian.).

New outlets quickly went to work blurring the lines between Islam and international conspiracy: By the time I got home from a long day of teaching (an introduction to linguistic anthropology, as it happens) and turned on CNN, we were already hearing details about a neighbors’ description of the “Muslim looking inscriptions” on Hasan’s front door, and Anderson Cooper was informing us about de-contextualized emails with unspecified “radical Muslim clerics” in Yemen and de-contextualized online postings about something to do with ideas of Jihad, the historical case of Kamakazi soldiers in WWII, and suicide bombing (which reminds me: I wonder if Talal Asad has made a watch-list yet). The significance of these communications has yet to be clarified.

What’s in a Name?

This consternation about naming indexes the common misconception that language simply and straightforwardly reflects and refers to the world, thus proving once and for all that if a linguistic anthropologist explains the Sapir-Worf Hypothesis to their students or the public, it doesn’t actually make a sound. It also demonstrates for us that these questions about the nature of the relationship between language and the world have real and dramatic consequences.

The discussions about whether or not to call Hasan a terrorist, or a victim of secondary trauma, or psychotic are conflated with the discussion of whether or not he is a terrorist or a victim of secondary trauma, or psychotic.

But if ever there were a case that ought to complicate these simple referential categories it was this. Hasan was a psychiatrist and potentially psychotic, he is Muslim and American, he is a soldier and is opposed to the wars in Iraq and Afganistan, he is an officer and he is (apparently) a murderer, he has three degrees and was a very poor student. I could go on, but I think you get the point.

What’s more, these various categories can’t just be mixed together in some additive way to explain some integral ‘identity’, ‘personality’, or ‘self’ and they certainly can’t be mobilized to explain the things they claim to name—If we read an argument like that in one of our students’ papers, we’d mark it with a big X and scribble “tautological” in the margins.

A Speaking Subject

The point here is that ideas about language are central to this very visceral event.

Those of us who have been following the coverage have heard a lot of people call Hasan a lot of things, we’ve read some of the things he’s written and things people have written about him. And all of this hearing and reading has been narrated for us in a way that implies that words have simple, referential meaning.

But there is one bit of language that is not a name that has become an intense site of elaboration about Hasan. It is said that, just before he started shooting he yelled out the takbir, the article of faith that translates into English as “God is great” or “God is the greatest.” It’s usually rendered in the roman alphabet as “Allahu akbar.” The question of whether or not he yelled it out is itself unsettled, and you can trace the dissemination of it pretty precisely online. Here’s how I’ve been mapping it: start with post commander Lt. General Cone the morning after the shootings, then to an AP story and the rapidly developing Wikipedia page, then a Yahoo news report the night of the 6th, and then to a CNN interview with an injured soldier on the 9th and then a complaint about that CNN report, then to the comments in this Politico post on the 11th, and then here to Bill O’Reilly on the 12th.

There is much to be said about the various attempts to pronounce, spell, and punctuate the utterance, all of which gets at the emergence of language use as a way of indexing expertise and community membership and all of which pushes us beyond the reality principle that operates in the ideology of language as naming.

What is even more compelling, and disturbing, to me is the fact that this utterance, something that must be spoken out loud as a declaration of faith, has come to be heard as indexical of membership in a global terrorist network.

This tells us something powerful about practices of speaking and hearing as acts of social construction of selves and others. Assuming that Hasan did indeed make this utterance (if he “shouted ‘Allahu Akbar!’” or “Allauh akbar […] which terrorists have used as a battle cry” or “ALLAH AKHBAR!!”), the conversation has not been about what he meant (was it intended to claim his actions in the name of God? Was it a confession of faith in the face of imminent death?).

The meaning has already been determined before the utterance is made: the utterance is understood to be a declaration not of faith, but of membership in a diffuse, global, radical, anti-American, terrorist network associated with a particular politicization of Islam and rooted in the middle east. It’s become a site of elaboration because if he made this declaration than it would seem we don’t need to worry about what to call him: We’ll finally have the expressive truth, straight from the horse’s mouth.

The thing I’ll be most interested in is what happens when we finally get to hear from Hasan, that is, when we hear the sound of his voice. I’m not that interested in what he’ll say. I’m more interested in what people will think when they hear the sound of this potential terrorist speaking like what he is: a 39 year old from suburban Virginia.

5 thoughts on “Language and the Media in Fort Hood

  1. I think nobody has commented on this post yet because it’s so well done that there’s little to argue with. I just wanted to tell Zoe that I’m still laughing over that Sapir-Whorf line.

  2. Glad you liked the Sapir-Whorf line. It was a deviation from my usual S-W material about either Star Trek or exploding gasoline kegs…or both.

    Many thanks for the compliment and for breaking (and explaining) the radio silence.

  3. very well said, zoe. i think the gross presumption being made by the media that a good percentage of the audience for say, Time or CNN, is not themselves Muslim American is frightening. stripping the word “terrorist” across a pic of Hasan goes farther than just labelling him. it is also a statement on who Time wants to read its magazine.

  4. fyi, regarding your closing point about when we may “hear from Hasan,” he did speak out a couple years ago in the form of a briefing about islam and jihadism. an analysis of its powerpoint slides, prepared by charles cameron, along with extensive discussion, appears at the small wars journal blog and at the zenpundit blog, with some continuation at the al-sahwa blog, mostly as follows:

    additional interesting material from a colleague of hasan’s appears in a post at kamran pasha’s blog at:

    i’m interested — hence my browsing over here — because of a broader interest in the tribalization of religion. so far, hasan looks more like a case of loner tribalism than lone-wolf terrorism. but there’s still a lot to be learned.

  5. What I’m interested it, as a former soldier, is that no one seems to be noting the particular conditions of the military. Unlike university, you can’t quit. you can’t just pack up and go look at a have effectively signed up for unfree labour. There are basically no options to even get out of work for the day, let alone in general. Pretty much any other job you can just say “fuck you i quit” if your job is making you feel awful, but not in the military, where you are trapped.

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