Convicted of 13 counts of premeditated murder, 42-year-old former Army psychiatrist Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, tugged on his beard while the jury foreman read the verdict. When Hasan yelled “Allahu Akbar” before massacring 13 soldiers and injuring 30 at an Army deployment center Nov. 5, 2009 at Fort Hood, Texas, it took months before the government acknowledged the real motives behind the mass murder. Tried for workplace violence, the Uniform Code of Military Justice has no grounds to trying Hasan as a terrorist or enemy combatant. What makes the Fort Hood massacre so intriguing is Hasan’s long military career as an Army psychiatrist, trained, no less, at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. Hasan’s conversion into a programmed al-Qaeda assassin should be the Pentagon’s biggest challenge, not putting the bearded Islamic fanatic to death.
Promising to recommend sentencing to Judge Col. Tara Osborn by Monday, Aug. 26, the 13-Army officer jury is expected to urge the death penalty, based on a trial in which Hasan admitted in opening arguments to being the trigger-man. While lead prosecutor Mike Mulligan made a convincing case for premeditated murder, the public also watched Hasan refuse to defend himself. In allowing the trial to go forward, Osborn took the recommendations for the so-called “Sanity Board” that insisted Hasan was fit to stand trial. Judging by his courtroom demeanor, Hasan showed suicidal tendencies, complete incompetence or a lack of fitness to represent himself, the later most likely due to a preexisting mental illness. Jurors never heard about Hasan’s dicey mental health history at Walter Reed, something that should have tipped off Osborn that he was unfit to stand trial or represent himself.
Sending the jury to deliberate over the penalty phase, Osborn should get to introduce the sad reality of the trial: That Hasan was not fit to stand trial. While the families seek revenge for Hasan’s senseless killings, Osborn must right the injustice that allowed a mentally disordered criminal to stand trial and represent himself. Whatever the premeditation, it’s conceivable that Hasan was more a programmed assassin than someone who possessed the capacity to know the consequences of his behavior. When 25-year-old Pvt. Bradley Manning was convicted Aug. 21 to 35 years for passing classified material to the press over government spying, his defense attorney sought leniency citing his troubled childhood and current transgender issues. Hasan’s well-documented history of mental illness before assigned to Fort Hood should mitigate against the death penalty.
Stressing that Hasan’s attack was premeditated doesn’t begin to identify the nuances involved in the brainwashing used by Yemen’s al-Qaeda chief Anwar al-Awlaki who played Hasan like a fiddle. While al-Awlaki certainly had the right pigeon, Hasan was clearly brainwashed into lashing out at the U.S. military for killing Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan. Given Hasan’s past e-mail exchange with al-Awalaki, any defense attorney worth his salt would demonstrate at no time was Hasan acting independently. When he admitted to the court he had no regrets killing the soldiers because he was protecting Muslims from U.S. attacks, he revealed his “premeditation” was tainted by his perverted thinking, partly induced by al-Awlaki but also caused by Hasan’s own mental illness. Whether the Pentagon admits it or not, Hasan was a “Manchurian candidate,” whose pathological behavior was influenced by outside forces.
Hasan’s refusal or inability to mount a coherent defense suggests strongly that the wheel chair-bound former Army psychiatrist seeks the Army to put him out of his misery by lethal injection. Pentagon, CIA and FBI officials need to study Hasan over time to figure out the triggering mechanisms that allowed a Pentagon-trained psychiatrist to get recruited and converted by al-Qaeda into a programmed assassin. It does no one any good to grant Hasan’s last request for martyrdom. Hasan told the court that his attack was motivated by “an illegal war,” giving him “adequate provocation” to attack U.S. soldiers readying for deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan. Given the extent of his al-Qaeda brainwashing by al-Awalaki, Hasan did not fit the definition of “premeditation” needed to sentence him to death. While he planned the attack, he was clearly under al-Awlaki’s spell.
Osborn’s big challenge during the penalty phase of Hasan’s trial is correcting the injustice of letting a brainwashed misfit to stand trial and represent himself. Judging by his performance, it’s clear he seeks the death penalty to complete what he couldn’t accomplish on Nov. 5, 2009: His martydom for Islam. Telling al-Awlaki in an e-mail he looked forward to greeting him in the afterlife, Hasan was so far over the edge that premeditation wasn’t really possible. It’s one thing to allow Hasan to hang himself at trial, it’s still another to allow a jury to get seduced into granting his request for lethal injection. Hasan’s jury should give social scientists a lifetime—no matter how long or short—to study the former Army psychiatrist to prevent future episodes from happening again. Putting Hasan to death satisfies the families need for revenge but sheds no light on the brainwashing responsible for mass murder.
About the Author
John M. Curtis writes politically neutral commentary analyzing spin in national and global news. He’s editor of OnlineColumnist.com and author of Dodging The Bullet and Operation Charisma.