What the Boston Bombers and Other Domestic Terrorists Have in Common:
All Were Scarred by Pointless U.S. Wars
The recent terrorist bombings at the end of the Boston Marathon is further evidence that US military intervention in other parts of the world is having unintended consequences, and the blow-back reaches all the way back to American soil. These two young men who committed this violent act were evidently radicalized Muslims. It is no coincidence that the country they are from (how do you spell that anyway?) has a majority Muslim population. And America has been waging war against Muslim countries ever since the first Gulf War in 1990-91. Since then America’s military has been or still is in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen and Somalia, and as I write this their newest target is Syria.
Before I go any further with this, I am not Muslim myself, in fact I’m a non-denominational Christian minister of the gospel of Christ Jesus. I don’t believe in Islam but I give due respect to those that do because it is always better, not to mention wiser, to have more friends than enemies. But to approach this issue in a Christ-like way, I will try and place myself in their situation or to walk a mile in their shoes. If I lived in that part of the world and my country was being attacked, I would want to fight back too. To me, at least, the reaction of these people is in a way understandable while being simultaneously repulsive and immoral due to their use of violence to attain a goal – presumably to seek vengeance against the US for wrongs both real and imagined. By the same token, the US is equally to blame for perpetrating often-unprovoked violence, and 80% of those being killed in US overseas military operations are civilians. It is an indisputable fact that over 100,000 Iraqi civilians died in the second Iraq war. At any rate, the use of terrorism is unjustifiable in the eyes of God. So you can be sure that another terrorist attack will take place sometime in the future here in America. It’s only a matter of time. But there are several other examples of violence being carried out as a result of American military action thousands of miles away.
Another example is the Washington Beltway sniper, John Allen Muhammad. Nine years ago, Muhammad was at the top of conservative commentators’ Islamo-fascists-with-Links-to-Al Qaeda lists. Now, like then, the search for foreign links is proving to be a fruitless, distracting us from the abundant evidence of a causal connection between such murders and service in the U.S. Military. In her recently published memoir, Scared Silent, Mildred Muhammad, the latter of his two ex-wives, writes that her husband went to the 1991 Gulf War a “happy,” “focused, and “intelligent” man, who returned home “depressed,” “totally confused,” and “violent,” making her fear for her life. In their briefs, Muhammad’s appeals lawyers stressed that his “severe mental illness” never came up at trial, where he was allowed to represent himself despite obvious mental incompetence. (Till the end, he maintained his innocence, claiming that at the time of the killing spree he was in Germany for dental work.) In seeking clemency and a stay of execution, Muhammad’s lawyers presented psychiatric reports diagnosing Schizophrenia and brain scans documenting profound malformations consistent with psychotic disease. But it wasn’t enough to stop his death sentence from being carried out, so one day before Veterans Day 2010, John Allen Muhammad was executed by lethal injection.
Muhammad’s lawyers might have included other facts. Mental disorders from depression to mood swings, thought disorders, violent outbursts, and delusions are not uncommon among Gulf War veterans in addition to physical symptoms such as rashes, vertigo, respiratory and gastrointestinal problem, and neurological diseases like Parkinson’s, ALS, and brain tumors. According to Dr. William E. Baumzweiger, a California psychiatrist with expertise in psychiatric ailments of Gulf War veterans, “a small but significant number of Gulf War veterans become homicidal” seemingly “out of nowhere.” Indeed as early as 1994, University of Texas epidemiologist Dr. Robert Haley, the preeminent researcher of Gulf War disease, had demonstrated that the brain scans of veterans with Gulf War illness were distinctly abnormal. Last year a blue-panel, congressional- mandated Gulf War Research Advisory Committee (RAC) finally confirmed what veterans and their families have long asserted: That “without a doubt,” Gulf War illness, as it’s come to be called, is a profound, multi-system physical illness “caused” by brain-damaging chemicals to which troops were exposed by the Department of Defense. The RAC report identified three specific neurotoxins as certain culprits: anti-nerve gas pills that troops were forced to take (or risk court martial), insecticides and repellants that drenched troops’ tents, clothing, and gear, and nerve gases including sarin (the killer chemical in the Tokyo subway attack) emitted into the air when U.S. forces dismantled and demolished a vast munitions storage facility in Khamisiyah, Iraq. Muhammad’s lawyers pointed to childhood beatings as a cause of his psychiatric disease and brain malformation, claiming that Gulf War syndrome exacerbated these conditions. But they didn’t mention that Mohammad had no history of mental illness before the war–and that during the war he was stationed in Khamisiyah.
It probably wouldn’t have helped. In 2002, another Gulf War veteran, Louis Jones Jr. was executed for the 1995 rape and murder of a young female soldier, Pvt. Tracie Joy McBride. Like Sergeant Muhammad, Sergeant Jones was an exemplary soldier decorated in the war; but also like Muhammad, he returned from Desert Storm depressed, disoriented, and increasingly anti-social and bizarre. Like Muhammad, his defense was inadequate – but his appeals lawyer displayed M.R.I.’s and other scans of his abnormal brain, arguing that it was evidence of the brain damage from toxins he and other veterans with Gulf War disease were exposed to in-country. Supporting the petition for clemency was the written testimony of Dr. Haley that “there is now a compelling involuntary link between Mr. Jones‘ neurotoxic war injury and his inexplicable crime.” Like Muhammad, Jones was stationed in Khamisiyah during the demolition, which poisoned thousands of troops and then thousands more as sarin plumes traveled far and wide, a fact the government hid for close to a decade.
And then there’s the case of Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber. We have no scans of his brain, but we have ample reports of his mental state before and after Desert Storm, and evidence that the war changed him profoundly. In their biography, American Terrorist, Lou Michel and Dan Herbeck paint a vivid picture of McVeigh’s days in the ground war. The enthusiastic young marksman, at first, happily followed orders and shot an Iraqi soldier manning a machine gun over a mile away. When a bloody mist replaced the soldier’s head in his viewfinder, McVeigh was disturbed and discharged the rest of his rounds into empty desert sand. Later, after Saddam had agreed to a UN and Soviet brokered ceasefire, McVeigh was further shocked and shaken by orders to kill defeated Iraqi soldiers traveling home on the highway from Kuwait to Iraq (come to be known as the “Highway of Death” for the thousands that U.S. Forces corralled and massacred on the night of Feb 26, 1991).
In his famous 60 Minutes interview ten years later, McVeigh would tell Ed Bradley that the killing changed him. He found himself thinking, “I’m in this person’s country. What right did I have to come over to his country and kill him? How did he ever transgress against me?” He went over thinking, “Not only is Saddam evil, all Iraqis are evil.” But quickly it was “an entirely different ballgame… face to face… you realize they’re just people like you.” He told Bradley that the government modeled brutal violence. In a 1998 prison essay he objected to the United State’s continuing campaign against Iraq: It was the U.S. that had “set the standard” for “stockpiling and use of weapons of mass destruction”.
McVeigh’s experience in the Gulf War surely altered his thinking. But did it also alter his brain? What toxins might have entered his body on the highway where U.S. forces had just dropped cluster bombs and 500-ton bombs, napalm and depleted uranium, incinerating thousands vehicles and the people inside. He told Ed Bradley that when he came back “something didn’t feel right in me, but… I couldn’t say what it was.” Psychological trauma alone, neuroscience now tell us, affects not only psyches but brains. Sophisticated neuron-imaging shows the brains of those who suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder to be abnormal in areas regulating memory retrieval and inhibition (hippocampus), fearfulness and focus (pre-frontal cortex), and emotionality and ability (amygdala). The hippocampus of Alzheimer’s sufferers are also shrunken and the amygdala of bi-polar sufferers have enhanced activation similar to those with PTSD.
Unlike McVeigh, Muhammad, or Jones, Major Nidal Hasan was not exposed to war’s toxins, nor to its traumas first-hand. Day after day, though, soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, or on their way back, relived before him attacks and atrocities they had inflicted, suffered, and/or witnessed, altering his views and his mind. In the beginning of his Army training and service, by all accounts, Nidal Hasan was proud to serve his country. His examination of the internal conflict within Muslim GIs asked to kill other Muslims – prohibited in the Koran– started out an academic project to enhance the Army’s understanding and management of the dilemma. But as Hasan’s exposure to mentally disturbed soldiers’ memories, fears, and guilt increased, so evidently did his own internal strife and, in all likelihood, the secondary PTSD common to family members, friends, and professionals in close contact with victims, witnesses, and perpetrators of catastrophes. Even the most astute of commentators, like New York Times columnist Frank Rich, are wondering if Hasan is an “actual terrorist or an unfathomable mass murderer merely dabbling in jihadist ideas.” But Major Hasan’s religion was only one of several aspects of his being shattered by the stories he was charged with hearing. The troubled GI who opened fire on fellow soldiers at a counseling center in Fort Liberty in 2010 was not a Muslim, although some right-wing blogs initially suggested he was. In truth, the violence soldiers and veterans inflict against other Americans is not unfathomable at all.
The fire power expended on Iraq in the 2nd Iraq war was greater than that used in all wars in history combined, exceeded only by today’s continuing sequel. The savage murder of civilians, though not on the radar of most producers and consumers of American media, smolders in the minds of many troops and veterans of all backgrounds serving in all three recent wars in the region. Troops on U.S. bases in Afghanistan and Iraq, like the local citizens, suffer the fumes from open burn pits the depth of city blocks and the length of small towns; blast injuries from I.E.D.’s continue to damage the interiors of bodies and brains, often with no external breakage or bleeding, causing, eminent neurologists say, a new kind of brain injury not seen before in the chronicles of war. Chemical fumes, powders, and liquids from military and industrial facilities bombed in both Operation Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom continue to contaminate earth, water, and air. Were today’s wars to end tomorrow, the consequences of our invasions would not. For decades and perhaps centuries, Iraqis and Afghans will suffer disease and deprivation, and invading and occupying troops will carry the war back home, as soldiers always do, but with brains, bodies, and minds shattered as never before.
The U.S. criminal justice system has long since came to a conclusion with regard to the cases of all of the above individuals I mentioned. On the other hand, the case against the sole surviving Boston bomber has barely gotten started, with another court hearing scheduled for the middle of this month. There are some questions that have yet to be asked. Who will identify and prosecute those who bear the greatest responsibility for these heinous mass murders? I’m not talking about the bombers, I mean their trainers and enablers. Who is working behind the scenes on behalf of those who use violence to get what they want? And who is their paymaster – who is holding and controlling the purse strings? The current trend in international war crimes and crimes against humanity is to consign crimes committed by individuals to national courts, and to apply international justice to those at the highest levels of government who make the decisions implemented on the ground. Brutal murders by American veterans and troops of fellow soldiers and citizens were surely not the outcomes planned by our leaders, but by now they are too common and too linked to wartime exposures to be considered unanticipated or unfathomable.