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Opinion focus with Eugene Robinson: What the Army could have done to prevent the Ft. Hood tragedy

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Eugene Robinson
Washington Post Columnist
Tuesday, November 10, 2009; 1:00 PM

Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson was online Tuesday, Nov. 10 to discuss his recent columns and the latest news.

Today's column: Failing the troops at Fort Hood

The transcript follows.

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Eugene Robinson: Hi, folks. Sorry I'm late. Let's begin.

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Flintstone, Md.: Thank you, Mr. Robinson, for your balanced view. It provides encouragement in these difficult times. I hope it finds a wide audience. Bigotry and prejudice is a hard shell to penetrate and I appreciate the efforts of you and others who continue to chip away at it.

Eugene Robinson: Thanks. You're referring to my column this morning about Nidal Hasan and what I saw as the responsibility of the Army to pick up on the warning signs. Hindsight, of course, is 20-20. But it looks as if the signs were pretty clear, and I hoped that officials weren't rationalizing his behavior out of a misguided sense of sensitivity.

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Herndon, Va.: Mr. Robinson,

I think it's time folks like you who champion political correctness accept some culpability in this tragedy. I served in Iraq in the Army and can tell you I have no doubt the people who say they tried to bring information about this cretin to life were rebuffed by the chain of command. Look at the Army Chief of Staff's response. Did he say we need to figure out how this happened so we can prevent a reoccurance? No. He said he was worried about a backlash against Muslim soldiers. Sorry, political correctness has truly gone amok.

Eugene Robinson: Gee, did you read the column? It argued, or tried to argue, that there's a difference between sensitivity and stupidity. What fellow Army doctors had to say was pretty stunning, I thought, and higher-ups should have paid attention.

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Fort Worth, TX: I think your article is wonderful. Thank you for making a strong case for prudence, not speculation. Unfortunately Muslim Americans will be the ones who suffer the doubtful glances and inquiries from strangers, an undeserved and likely overlooked consequence of Hasan's actions, but hopefully through voices like yours, trust will return quickly. Like a break in the bones of a body, hopefully the repaired relationships between Muslim Americans and 'the rest of us' will be stronger for these doubts and we will be a better community in spite of this tragedy.

Eugene Robinson: I hope. Thanks.

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Boston: Do you support investigating other Muslims in the military to see if they have the same beliefs as this guy? If not, why?

Eugene Robinson: No, not just because they are Muslim. But a Muslim, or a Christian for that matter, who behaves that erratically deserves a closer look. There are a lot of people in the Army who might have negative feelings about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but that's not the same as telling people you feel a divided loyalty.

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Oklahoma City: Eugene, the American people are such cowards. They don't want to acknowledge the truth. We cannot assume that someone is a radical if they attend a mosque led by a radical imam any more than we can assume that President Obama is a radical America hater just because he attended Reverend Wright's church. Each case has to be investigated without fear of being dubbed prejudiced or racist. Fear is the problem. People are cowards in matters of discussing race relations. Our attorney general was correct.

Eugene Robinson: True enough. You have to look at the whole picture and the whole individual.

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Bowie, Md.: Mr. Robinson, I normally read your columns looking for insight and perspective. However, I am left baffled at your assertion that associating with individuals known to speak against the U.S. should have alerted people to the Major does not sit well with me. During President Obama's campaign, reference was made to Rev. Wright and others that Mr. Obama held radical views and could not be trusted to put the interest of U.S. first. If this were the case, then Mr. Obama should not serve in such a high office within our government. While there were other signals that reflected the Major's internal conflict between serving in the U.S. Army and his faith, I feel strongly that targeting individuals based on whom they may associate with, and using that association as a sign that this person is not trustworthy, can cause more problems then it will resolve.

Eugene Robinson: Again, the point isn't really guilt by association, which is wrong. The point is that this guy apparently was acting bizarrely and talking bizarrely -- his views about his duty as a Muslim, as opposed to his duty as an Army officer, alarmed some of his colleagues. He was trying to get out of the Army any way he could. He was distraught over being sent to the war zone. Against that backdrop, I don't see how you can fail to be curious about what imams he's listening to.

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Falls Church, Va.: If the Army had acted against Hasan as you now say it should have, there would have been an outcry on the left, perhaps even from you, that the Bush Administration was oppressively purging Muslim soldiers for dissenting about the conduct of the war. I can hear it: "Hasan was doing nothing more than counseling sensitivity and outreach toward Muslim points of view, and for that Donald Rumsfeld cashiered him." You can't have it both ways.

The only thing he did that you might have considered questionable at the time was the communication with his former imam, but the Government -did- investigate that and found it to be harmless.

Eugene Robinson: The guy was trying desperately to get out of the Army. I know the Army doesn't just let people go whenever they want, but it does decide in some cases that a discharge is best for the Army as well as the soldier.

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Atlanta: Gene,

Unfortunately, our culture is not one of prevention, whether it be our own health, national security or tragedies like Ft. Hood. It is a very fine line to draw on deciding who might really need help before they blow up or who is harmless and just mouthing off. In hindsight, its easy to see that signs were missed. We, on the whole, do not believe in interfering in other people's lives or taking the chance that we might ruin someone's career by reporting all the oddballs out there. After reading the book "Columbine," I was shocked that people, including Harris's and Klebold's parents, -did- recognize there were problems and even tried to do something about it. It's just that no one, not even professionals, were capable of seeing that these kids were headed for mass murder. I believe the same is true in this case.

Eugene Robinson: That's true, and it would be absurd for me to claim that I had some kind of formula for knowing where the line should be drawn. Our sense of freedom and justice precludes preemptive arrest or detention. Then again, the Army is less free than society at large, and must be so. There has to be a line SOMEWHERE between suspecting all Muslim soldiers of treason and recognizing that a specific Muslim soldier is so conflicted about the Army's mission that his situation should be looked at more closely.

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Herndon, Va.: I did read the column. I fear you underestimate how pervasive PC is in the military now. Any time any kind of criticism is leveled against a minority - and in this case MAJ Hasan was both a Muslim and of Middle eastern extraction - people run for the hills for fear of having equal opportunity complaints filed against them. It makes training and counseling soldiers extremely difficult. I've seen careers ruined because a leader had the nerve - the nerve, I say! - to suggest a substandard soldier who happened to be member of a minority group perform. The vast majority of all soldiers, black, white, red, orange, Muslim, Christian, male, female, etc are stellar people of whom the American people should be proud. The current PC environment in the Army now, however, means you can only correct white males without concerns about discrimination complaints being filed. Although to be fair, it's about a 50/50 chance the white guys will file a complaint about being "picked on." Today's generation and all...

Eugene Robinson: Well if that's true, then it's wrong. It is possible for an institution to promote diversity while maintaining the highest standards. But you have to be really serious about diversity. If you treat it as an onerous chore, you won't do it right.

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Gulf Shores, Ala.: Gene: Although a misguided sensitivity may have played a part, it wasn't like he wouldn't have been glad to be out of the Army, it was the sad fact that the Army has 550 psychiatrist (per General Casey to John King, CNN Sunday). They had spent all this money on training this Doctor and didn't have enough people to take his place. Another sad tale in the NYT today about a soldier, suffering from PTSD, who committed suicide. The message on his answering machine: "Sorry but your scheduled visit for counseling has been canceled, we have no one who can see you today."

Eugene Robinson: Wow, I hadn't see that piece. It's certainly true that we're trying to do all this war-fighting on the cheap, in terms of the number of personnel we have. Troops are being assigned to the war zones for dangerously long tours. The average length of time a soldier served in Vietnam was, what, around half a year? Maybe a little less? If we're going to fight wars, we need a big enough military to do so.

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Alexandria, Va.: "The point is that this guy apparently was acting bizarrely and talking bizarrely..."

I'm not so sure that one can call his change in attitudes "bizarre." He doesn't seem to have lost his grip on reality; he just became more and more entrenched in his religion, and in the teachings of some leaders of his religion. That is very different from someone who goes psychotically crazy, who suffers from schizophrenia or the like. His actions were very much impelled by his religious beliefs. Not that all Muslims are terrorists, but clearly there is a significant cohort who are. I think we need to be clear about the difference between mental illness and religious terrorism. They are not the same thing.

Eugene Robinson: I disagree that there is a "significant cohort" of Muslims who are terrorists. There are a billion Muslims in the world and an infinitesimal fraction are terrorists. That tiny percentage would be even smaller among Muslims in this country. I don't think Hasan was a terrorist, per se. I think he is unbalanced, and I think his craziness stems in part -- but only in part -- from a conflict he perceived between his religious duty and his military duty. I think this acute conflict made itself increasingly obvious and should have been looked into.

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Richmond, Va.: I believe you are advocating a level of nuance that will prove to be impossible for any large organization to implement: i.e. weed out the crazies without infringing on anyone else's rights. Typically, large organizations have to draw clear bright lines in order to ensure compliance with policies by all the members.

So basically your choice is:

1. Weed out the crazies, along with some innocent Muslims (and yes, it will be mostly them)

2. Decide that tolerance and diversity is a higher priority (which it well may be in order to have an Army culture capable of executing a counter insurgency mission in the Muslim world and elsewhere) and take the chance that some real bad apples will slip through.

The same argument also applies to the TSA and airline screenings. I.e. the belief that everyone regardless of gender, age, and ethnicity should have an equal change of being stopped and searched and the reaction when an airline uses discretion and ends up delaying a flight due to "suspicious" passengers.

Eugene Robinson: I don't think it's that hard. I just think you pay attention to the soldiers who tell you, in plain language and repeatedly, that they believe the United States is at war with Islam and can't participate in such an enterprise. And who argue that all Muslims should be considered conscientious objectors. And who desperately resist being sent to the war zone. And who behave erratically. You wouldn't have needed anything more draconian than that to identify Hasan as someone who might be in trouble.

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Sarasota, Fla.: Mr. Robinson, I have a young friend serving in Afghanistan now. He has had a week at his FOB so he's been online and reading about this case. He tells me that if this doctor was deployed and said some of the things he's read in your paper, there are plenty of guys in his platoon that, to quote, "would have taken action". You are right in saying that a discharge (my opinion, general, not honorable) would have been the compassionate thing to do.

Eugene Robinson: I agree -- a general discharge, probably. The Army is different from society at large. In the military, there has to be the expectation that everyone accepts the basic idea -- good guys over here, bad guys over there. I'm not getting into nuance or talking about extreme cases involving possible war crimes. I'm just saying that if somebody in the military, in a war zone, really believes it's wrong to shoot at the people our government has decided to shoot at, that's a potential problem.

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SW Nebraska: Thanks for trying but how do you tell people to be thoughtful about anything? Look at the backlash when the report came out warning about rightwing radicals in our military. Yet my grandson's experience as a new Marine tells me that it is a frightening problem.

Eugene Robinson: Interesting. If nothing else comes out of this awful episode, maybe we'll take a closer look at the state of our military. Are we putting too much strain on the armed forces? Are we so desperate for personnel that we're not hewing to reasonable standards?

Anyway, my time is up for today, folks. Thanks for stopping by to chat, and I promise I'll be on time next week.

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