This piece is part of the The Whiplash Decade, a package on the wild ride that was the 2010s.
On November 9, 2009, Army Major Nidal Malik Hasan opened fire on his fellow soldiers at Fort Hood in Texas, yelling “Allahu Akbar!” during his rampage through a facility that processes troops for deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan, specifically targeting people in uniform as he went. His act brought the largest military base in the United States to a standstill and left 12 people dead and 31 wounded. It also plunged the U.S. media, military, and public into a crisis of naming: Was Hasan’s attack an act of “terrorism”?
The issue was more than academic. Since 9/11, Americans had been hyper attuned to the prospect of terrorist attacks. Hasan was a Muslim, a Virginia-born American citizen deeply critical of U.S. conduct in the “war on terror,” and a psychiatrist whose acquaintances described him as “mortified” at the prospect of an upcoming deployment to the Middle East. Understanding his attack as “terror” raised difficult questions about everything from U.S. foreign policy to whether survivors of this attack would receive combat decorations. Eventually, the wounded received Purple Hearts, and Hasan was court-martialed, found guilty of murder, and sentenced to death. But through it all, the Pentagon insisted the Fort Hood attack was not terrorism but “workplace violence.” Rather than being an exceptional act, in other words, Hasan’s spree was classified as an all too familiar and all too American act.
Ten years later, at the close of the decade, the perverse normalcy of mass shootings is a given. The omnipresent threat of alien extremists intruding upon the “homeland” with waves of mass-casualty acts never materialized. (Attacks like the one by a Saudi military student in Florida this month are virtually nil.) Instead, the nation is wracked, time and again, by high-profile stories of Americans (usually white) mass-murdering their neighbors. Of the 10 deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history, six have occurred since Hasan’s attack: Sandy Hook (27 dead in 2012), Orlando (49 in 2016), Sutherland Springs (26…