The military trial of Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan finally began last week. The long delay did not build anticipation within the media. On the contrary, elite editors and producers have shown much less interest in this courtroom drama than in, say, the trial of George Zimmerman. The New York Times, for example, ran its story on the opening of the Hasan trial on page 13. The headline: “Lawyer Says Fort Hood Defendant’s Goal Is Death.”
“This has got to be torture,” the Times quotes law professor Geoffrey S. Corn as saying. He is not speaking about the victims or their families. He is not speaking about any emotion the attorneys might feel about defending an admitted and unrepentant mass murderer. He is speaking about how tough it is for lawyers who oppose capital punishment to have failed to persuade Hasan that it would be in his best interest to refrain from telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
“Any lawyer who’s dismissed by his client and ordered to stay on the case as a standby counsel, it is probably one of the hardest things imaginable for a lawyer to do,” Corn added. “You have to sit there and watch your client make what you know are potentially mortal mistakes, and that’s agonizing.”
Speaking of agonizing mortal mistakes: The 42 year-old American-born son of Palestinian immigrants, Hasan was educated as a psychiatrist (at the expense of U.S. taxpayers) and rose steadily through Army ranks (he continues to draw a salary to this day). Early and ample evidence that he was embracing radical religious doctrines was ignored by his superior officers, evidently because they feared being accused of Islamophobia.
Representing himself, as is his constitutional right, Hasan told jurors that he was indeed responsible for the slaughter: “The evidence will clearly show that I am the shooter.” He said that during the years he spent as an American soldier, he was “on the wrong side,” so he “switched sides” and became a “mujahedeen” fighting America.
Witnesses testified that he targeted men and women in uniform, rather than civilians, and that he did not hesitate to shoot the wounded as they lay bleeding on the floor. One of his victims, Pvt. Francheska Velez, 21, was pregnant. She pleaded: “Please don’t, please don’t, my baby, my baby.” Both she and her unborn child were among the dead.
Following all this, Lt. Col. Kris R. Poppe, appointed “standby counsel” after Hasan fired him as head defense lawyer, complained to the judge that his client wants to be sentenced to death, and that helping him reach that goal would violate his “ethical obligations.” He found that goal “repugnant,” he added.
Allow me to be the first to accuse Poppe of insensitivity. He is clearly disparaging Hasan’s religious beliefs, his interpretation of his religious obligations — an interpretation not shared by most of the world’s Muslims but one shared by a substantial minority including members of al-Qaida, the Taliban, Hezbollah, Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, whose motto includes the phrase: “Dying in the way of Allah is our highest hope.”
Anwar Al-Awlaki, the late American-born al-Qaida leader, once the imam of a Virginia mosque, called Hasan a “hero” and a “man of conscience” who “opened fire on soldiers who were on their way to be deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. How can there be any dispute about the virtue of what he has done?” Hasan now wants what Awlaki achieved with the help of an American missile fired from a drone in Yemen: martyrdom.
History is replete with religious wars and religiously motivated warriors seeking rewards in the afterlife. Examples are found not only within the Muslim world but also in what is now called the West, countries that have adopted such lofty ideas as multiculturalism, diversity, tolerance, peaceful coexistence and, of course, “conflict resolution.”
Because these ideas have been presented as “modern” rather than Western, Poppe and millions like him have expected the rest of the world to quickly embrace them. That expectation turns out to have been mistaken. Mistakes have consequences. That is among the truths Hasan is communicating. Poppe and others in high office just don’t want to hear it.
Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on national security.