Imagine, in the dead of night, a soldier slipping off the Army base in Tacoma, Wash., and walking into a local neighborhood. He leaves footprints along the way that indicate he may have tried to kick in other gates until he found one open.
He enters that home and shoots 11 people; confusion reins among locals about how many were shot in their sleep in the 2 a.m. home invasion and how many were gathered into the same room before being killed. Regardless, the victims are all of the same family.
He then walks some two miles away to another neighborhood on the other side of the military base. There, he enters two homes and kills five more.
With a death toll of 16, including nine children and three women, the shooter walks back to his base and turns himself in.
The mass murders would elicit shock and outrage across the country. The suspect would be remembered by old classmates as happy-go-lucky or as co-workers as generally pleasant, while darker bits of his past would abate some of the surprise over the allegations: a domestic violence incident with a past girlfriend in which he agreed to complete anger-management counseling to get the charges dropped, a hit-and-run incident. One official would bring up alcohol as a factor in the violence; the high-profile defense attorney would bring up a number of other mitigating factors to try to spare his client the death penalty.
Inevitably, comparisons would be made to other mass murderers in American history: Charles Whitman, who climbed the clock tower well-armed at the University of Texas in 1966 and killed 16; James Huberty, who killed 21 patrons at a San Ysidro McDonald’s in 1984; George Hennard, who shot 23 to death at Luby’s cafeteria in Killeen, Texas, in 1991; Seung-Hui Cho, who methodically killed 32 on the Virginia Tech campus in 2007. Candlelight vigils would be held. The community would, to some futility, try and try to grasp for the reason why he snapped, but they’d stop far short of excusing his murderous rampage.
To the criminologically minded, the pieces aren’t a bad fit. Mass murderers are primarily white, male, prefer guns as the killing weapon to swiftly take out victims, and have myriad motivations, I confirmed by pulling an old college textbook off the shelf, “Serial Murderers and Their Victims” by Dr. Eric Hickey. “Unlike serial killers, the mass murderer appears to give little thought or concern to his or her inevitable capture,” Hickey writes in this second edition. “…In some cases offenders surrender to police and offer no resistance.”
Many others in history have also been passed up for promotions; it’s the textbook mass murderer who, frustrated by perceived injustices, lashes out at people to whom he has no relationship in an attempt to regain control over his life.
Now take that scenario and drop it into Afghanistan. It’s March 11, and Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, 38, stands accused of committing those crimes and turning himself in. The victims are Afghan, and speak Pashto instead of English.
“The social impact of mass murders tends to be restricted to the communities in which they occurred,” Hickey writes in that textbook. “…Recognizing potential mass murderers is usually a matter of hindsight; we are quick to attach motivating factors and personality defects to offenders once they have vented themselves on their victims.”
The location of Bales’ alleged crimes, however, ramps up the political impact for those who would use the textbook slayings as means to an antiwar end.
A post on Iraq Veterans Against the War called it “just the latest example of the U.S./NATO failed military strategy in Afghanistan and are calling on elected officials to stop funding the war, which now costs taxpayers between $1 and $2 billion per week. …These veterans hope that the Kandahar massacre will be a turning point in the U.S. occupation.”
“To our elected officials and the people who elected them: this is what you get when you refuse to do what is necessary to create and maintain sufficient military force to fight your wars,” Ron Capps wrote at Time.
“The episode does present an occasion for asking what Sergeant Bales and his fellow combatants were fighting for over the past decade,” wrote Robert W. Merry of The National Interest. “When his country sent the man back into combat for the fourth time in eight years, what was the purpose, and what had been accomplished toward that purpose through his previous three tours?”
Pundits are leaping on the tragedy as what assuredly must be a clear-cut example of a U.S. soldier “pushed to the brink” by four deployments and being away from his family.
The sacrifices that men and women in our armed forces have made over the past two wars are intense. But what does it say about our respect for the fortitude of our servicemen and women to suggest that too many deployments and the related financial and marital stress naturally must turn a U.S. soldier into a cold-blooded killer?
You can achieve better psych care for soldiers who have been adversely affected by years of war, better after-care for those who have suffered traumatic brain injuries, and a better support system for families who yo-yo between deployments without attempting to tie a cause-and-effect to mass murder.
To its credit, the White House is not wading into this morass, and despite the wisdom of its Afghanistan withdrawal timeline doesn’t seem to be letting this tragedy advance that at all.
Not that they’re not being thrown bait. Spokesman Jay Carney was asked at Monday’s press briefing “about [Bales’] personal history and about the strains of war, multiple tours of duty. Is the president closely following the case — not just the judicial side of it but the personal story of Sergeant Bales?”
“I would just say that the president is focused on two things: One, as he made clear last week, the incident, the killing of these innocent Afghan civilians was a tragic and terrible event, and it did not represent what our military stands for, what the American people stand for,” Carney replied. “There is an investigation that’s taking place, and we’re not going to wade into that from here. And then, there is the overall mission that our men and women in uniform are implementing in Afghanistan, which he is, of course, very focused on.”
Antiwar forces aren’t the only ones pulling the killings into the political arena. Afghan President Hamid Karzai is understandably furious, but demanded that NATO coalition troops pull out of villages as a result. He’s accused the U.S. of not cooperating with the investigation and has advanced the conspiracy theory that more than one American soldier must be involved. The Taliban called off “peace talks” with a vow to behead “sadistic” American soldiers.
Turning one’s self in doesn’t negate the right to a fair trial, and Bales is now preparing for that day in court. He quickly lawyered up with Seattle attorney John Henry Browne, whose resume includes representing serial killer Ted Bundy. Browne appears to be setting up a defense of trying to get the charges scaled back and avoid capital punishment, hence the introduction of mental-health indicators.
A military jury with their own separation stories, financial hurdles, and battle scars is unlikely to accept the punditry defense of too many tours.
And bearing in mind that a three-strikes law won’t deter a serial killer, those who would use the Afghanistan massacre to agenda-push should step back and appropriately distinguish the policy from the psychology.