World  
comments_image Comments

What Nidal Hasan, Timothy McVeigh, and the Beltway Sniper Have in Common: All Were Scarred by Pointless U.S. Wars

Some of the most notorious massacres of the past 15 years have been committed by veterans whose brains have been severely damaged from trauma or exposure to toxic chemicals.

Continued from previous page

 
 
Share
 
 
 

And then there's the case of Timothy McVeigh. 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 round 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). He watched the road in horror as dogs chewed on human limbs, and as human bodies without arms or legs tried to crawl away.

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, neeruoscientist now tell us, affects not only psyches but brains. Sophisticated neuroimaging 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 lability (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 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.