Guilty by Association

On October 27, 1995, at Fort Bragg, one Army officer was killed. On March 23, 2003, at Camp Pennsylvania, one Army officer was killed. On June 7, 2005, at the National Guard Headquarters in Tikrit, two officers were killed. On February 25, 2008, at Tinker Air Base, two children of an Air Force sergeant were killed. On May 11, 2009, at Camp Liberty, five soldiers were killed, and on November 5, 2009, at Fort Hood, 13 people were killed.

Each of these killings was an act of violence against our military families, committed by fellow American military officers. What all of the perpetrators have in common is not their race, age, or religion, but the shared experience of post-traumatic stress disorder.

It is estimated that 35 percent of American soldiers suffer from PTSD, and while officials may insist that incidents like this month’s shooting at Ford Hood are “isolated,” in reality, they are the unfortunate consequence of the trauma suffered by the men and women in our armed forces. Major Nidal Hasan, the latest culprit, would have known this better than anyone, having devoted his life to treating soldiers afflicted with PTSD, an alarmingly prevalent condition in the wake of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. That a mental-health specialist would commit such an atrocious act of malice reflects the severity of this mental condition.

Yet this question has been sidelined by the mainstream media’s emphasis on Hasan’s heritage, to the great detriment of Arab and Muslim-American communities, who share the grief that all Americans feel for the victims and their families. While we acknowledge the existence of fundamentalists, we—as Arab-Americans—reject the immediate and exaggerated portrayal of this incident as yet another example of Middle Eastern extremism. Hasan was only one of the 3,500 military officials of Arab descent, and one of 20,000 Muslim Americans patriotically serving our country. He cannot, and does not, represent our communities.

It is unclear what Hasan’s motivations were, but regardless of whether religion played a role, his crimes cannot be separated from the historical context of intra-military violence, catalyzed by the difficulty of military sacrifice. Having recently received notice of his slated deployment to the very battlefields that so traumatized his patients, Hasan may have broken down emotionally—a psychological reaction that is not unique to any demography. Though there is no alleviating the consequences of his reprehensible actions, there is also little to be gained from searching for a narrative of religious or ethnic extremism. There is, on the contrary, much to be lost.

Hasan undoubtedly wounded our country and, specifically, our community, as Arab-Americans have also been implicitly incriminated in his crimes. At Harvard, we have not been immune from this suspicion, even as we mourn. Last week, we faced two additional blows that have exacerbated our precarious position: An event was displaced by the Harvard Kennedy School while another high-profile event was postponed by the College, both without our consent or consultation. In both instances, the administration has undermined our efforts to raise awareness about Arab-Americans, further marginalizing an already ostracized population.

In the former instance, the Harvard Arab Alumni Association’s annual conference, which attracts hundreds of students and alumni from all over the world, lost its venue for its keynote address. After months of planning and repeated assurances that the venue was secure, the Kennedy School decided to host a different event at the same time in the same place at the last minute.

Furthermore, a Society of Arab Students film screening and student panel aimed at dispelling stereotypes of Arab-Americans was postponed in light of the incident at Foot Hood. Yet no satisfactory justification has been given for the specific rationale, thus raising suspicion and confusion about the objective of our event. The decision implies the culpability and invites the rebuke of our community. Worse yet, the need for our event was made ironically explicit in administrators’ explanation that they had consulted, instead, with the Harvard Islamic Society, thus conflating disparate religious and ethnic communities. In fact, not only are there two thirds of Arab-Americans who are Christian, but also the vast majority of Muslim-Americans are not Arab.

Our community and its members have increasingly come under scrutiny and judgment in the wake of September 11th. Images of turban-clad terrorists and cries of martyrdom have become almost synonymous with our identities—even here at Harvard. We constantly seek to dispel these stereotypes, precisely because of the damage they incur on personal and political levels. Yet instances like these remind us that there is work to be done. We call on the administration to be more sensitive to the needs and experiences of Arab-American student organizations on campus, recognizing the uniquely precarious position in which we find ourselves in the wake of tragedies that affect us all, as Americans.

Sa’ed A. Atshan is a joint doctoral candidate in anthropology and Middle Eastern studies. Nadia A. O. Gaber ’09-’10, a Crimson editorial writer, is a history and literature concentrator in Dudley House. Rimal A. Kacem ’10 is an economics concentrator in Pforzheimer House. They are both former presidents of the Society of Arab Students.

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