For most of DC contractors, civilian, and Federal employees, Monday September 16th began like Monday’s in the region usually do: lots of traffic, contemplating telework to avoid traffic, or deciding to get in the office early enough to avoid traffic and thereby leave early enough for the same reason, thanks to many of our flexible schedules. Like many of the victims Monday morning, I had just sat down to my desk with my cup of coffee, logged into Microsoft Outlook, and was ready to start the day doing my small part to help keep the government going. It was with great shock and heartache that we all learned not long after many of our morning routines began, of the tragic events that took place not even 3 miles from where I work. My co-workers and I stared at the CNN stream on the televisions slack-jawed and many with tears in our eyes. All said some variant of the same thing, “It could have been us”. These sentiments weren’t the usual commentary that one makes when a major tragedy occurs while reflecting and recognizing our own mortality. No for those of us who like the victims, take the same trains, travel the same roads, work for the same agencies, we knew that there wasn’t much stopping a similar tragedy from happening to us. The only difference being a matter of mere miles and a killer willing to strike this agency or another. I drive past the Navy Yard area everyday back and forth on my way to and from work and have no doubt that many of the victims and their coworkers likely travel in cars beside me as we all begin and end our days in DC land. My prayers go out to the families and the victims of this tragedy and pray that no one will ever have to face such terror again. These men and women like so many in the same lines of work and employ, simply seek to serve their country and be able to provide for their families. We don’t come to work thinking that we might not return home, but our tear-stained cheeks, that morning suggested that maybe we should from now on.
It’s perfectly normal that once something of this magnitude occurs that we seek out the cause and look for some greater meaning. We want to know more about the killer, why he did it, and how was he able to pull it off. I’d like to believe that we do this, the media spectacularly so, in order to realize ways to prevent this from ever happening again, but the cynic in me thinks that although prevention may play a role, there are other reasons, some more nefarious, that are behind our fascination with this killer and the many before him. To be honest, once the initial shock began to fade, one of my first thoughts was “please God don’t let it be a Muslim”, which was also the sentiment of many Muslims in America as we texted and messaged one another. Tragic as the events are, we did not want to also witness the spectacle of the media pouncing on the always popular Muslim=terrorist stories. As a Black man I wasn’t so much worried about the killers race, because truth be told, it’s always said and inferred in the media that Black men are violent savages and after 4 centuries plus of this rhetoric, I’m numb to it. Not that apathy toward the killer’s race helped much when a co-worker, a Black male himself, came to my desk once the killer’s photo was revealed with a grim look on his face. I took one look at him and said “Damn he was Black wasn’t he?” my co-worker nodded solemnly and I just shook my head. This personal recounting is not so much to dwell on the feelings of what it’s like to connect with the tragedy on many levels, but to question the sensationalist frenzy and fervor the media whips itself into in their quest to be current on the latest prevailing theory as to why the killer did what he did.
In less than 72 hours the spin and hype machines have identified so many things as potential reasons for Aaron Alexis’s killing spree. So much so that the prospect that a Black, Buddhist, Navy Vet, Defense Contractor, who also played violent video games, is the killer is beginning to sound ridiculous on the surface. What troubles me is how little the media knows or rather intentional feigns ignorance on when it comes to many aspect’s of this guys past. They have questioned his discharge and opined how it was possible for him to get a job as a subcontractor to HP and get a clearance, as if your considered damaged goods if you don’t get an Honorable Discharge from the military. Newsflash, people get other than Honorable discharges from the military for a myriad of reasons some purely for administrative reasons. They’ve questioned his “violent” past, which I normally wouldn’t have an issue with as it could be relevant, but maybe it’s just me, but the way they have covered it, juxtaposed by images of his Black scowling face, seems to me the media is playing up the Black men are inherently dangerous and not to be trusted angle. Then there is the violent video game story that just won’t go away. This aspect of the story reminds me of the 90’s Gangsta Rap stories where we were told to believe that the genre and artists were somewhat to blame because some people decided to go out and act out what they heard. It was as if every “Black” youth who heard 2Pac automatically went out and shot up the neighborhood. Likewise, we are now supposed to believe that yet again, if you play Call Of Duty or GTA, you are prone to go out with AR-15’s and kill a bunch of people or beat up prostitutes in a back alley. One aspect that I find particularly interesting is the religion aspect of this story and how’s its being covered.
Let’s not kid ourselves, just as myself and many fellow Muslims were praying that this guy not be a Muslim, heck even after the name was revealed some of us still feared that he may be a convert, there were also many in the media hoping that he would be a Muslim. In fact, many Conservative media outlets had already started running with the usual terrorism and Muslim accusations. However, when it was revealed that he was a Buddhist, there were crickets on every network. We all know why that is. It’s the same reason why the slaughter of the Muslims in Myanmar by the Buddhists is never covered even though the Dalai Lama on several occasions has brought it up and asked his fellow Buddhists to stop killing Muslims. The media seems to have decided that only one religion’s adherents kill based on their beliefs and therefore, whenever a killer who belongs to a religion other than Islam is in the news, his religion and the role it may or may not have played in their crimes is never investigated. It must always be something else when it’s a non-Muslim, but had Aaron Alexis been a Muslim, we all know that every “expert” would be on the news right now explaining how violent Islam is and Muslims like myself would be on as well defending our faith against the onslaught. All in the name of ratings of course.
Why aren’t we allowed to question Buddhism though? Could it be that the powers that be have decided that Buddhism is a peaceful, tranquil religion above reproach and it’s adherents are never violent? I mean it’s not like Buddhists never try to commit genocide on non-Buddhists or anything dastardly like that right? Don’t get me wrong, I seriously doubt that Aaron Alexis had the teachings of Buddha on his mind when he killed, maimed, and traumatized his fellow co-workers and the nation, no more than his co-religionists in Myanmar do. But, I do question the behavior of the media in regards to it’s coverage of a killer’s religion when he or she is a non-Muslim and admit that when it was revealed that he was a Buddhist a wry smile crossed my lips. Not because I was happy or relieved that he was a Muslim per se, people died after all, but curious to see the spin that would take place, knowing that something ridiculous was forthcoming as the media figured out how to approach the topic. It didn’t take long for them to come up with something stupid.
Today we are being inundated with reports that although it appeared that Aaron Alexis was a devout Buddhist, in reality he was only into the religion because he liked Thai women. He also loved to drink and go to strip clubs. In other words, the Buddhist religion played absolutely no role in this tragedy and the media is going to ensure that we understand that the killer’s personal life bears witness to the fact that he couldn’t have “truly” been a Buddhist. Fair enough. However, I can’t help but think how awesome it would be if every killer was given the same treatment when their religion came up as a topic. I mean how many times are we told that because a killer identifies as a Muslim that it means that Islam absolutely played a role in their actions even though when their personal lives are revealed the facts are often similar to that of Aaron Alexis? Take the Boston Marathon bomber. This kid by many accounts was a pot-smoking, party going, rap listening, teen who just happened to be Muslim. Yet, even though you don’t have to be a Religious Studies major to know that Islam forbids many of these actions, none of that was enough to separate the killer from his religion. Heck, even Osama Bin Laden was reported to have a stash of porn.
My overall point, is that in order to advance in these discussions when it comes to figuring out a killer’s motives, we need to be more honest and forthcoming in our assessments. We need to abandon our prejudices and the need for sensationalism as a means of ratings generation. Yeah I know it won’t happen until purple unicorns fly, but if we are looking for solutions there is no better place to begin than with honesty. The fact remains that religion isn’t the best indicator of a killer’s motives unless they expressly claim so and not even then most of the time. Most if not all religions teach in the sanctity of life, are often completely non-violent, and when violence of any kind is permitted, it’s never against the innocent and never offensive. Furthermore, many religious people, or those who claim to follow this or that religion, rarely follow or practice every aspect of their stated religion’s teachings. I seriously doubt Jesus, Moses, Buddha, or Muhammad Peace and Blessings Be Upon Them, would advocate or support many of the behaviors the typical, law-abiding, American engages in. Sure religion plays a role in many of our lives, but the degree to which is does varies from one person to the next. For all we know, Aaron Alexis truly believed in the teachings of Buddha, yet decided to kill anyway. How many of us sincerely profess belief in our religion, yet smoke, drink, party, view and attend things and places we know we shouldn’t? I for one doubt Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) would be all that supportive of my playing Dead Rising, Call Of Duty, and Mortal Kombat, but I digress.
Also, the media sucks on so many levels when discussing the military or how the government actually functions. It made me almost sick to my stomach every time I heard an anchor or pundit in their false outrage voice exclaim and opine about how is it possible that Aaron Alexis was able to get a clearance and a job as a Defense Contractor. For a while they played up the fact that he subcontracted with a company that worked for HP but soon after all mention of HP disappeared, likely due to corporate sponsorship warnings. The reality is that there are different types of discharges that are granted for varying reasons. That said, if you’re going to operate a “no spin zone” or try to “keep them honest” segment or any other self-congratulatory news coverage platitude in the media, at least do some research. Most discharges from the military do not impact one’s ability to seek or be granted employment or a clearance by the Federal government. You’re not automatically ruined, solely due to not having received and Honorable Discharge. That said, Alexis probably had no real criminal record, decent credit, and combined with prior military service made him more than eligible for a clearance, something that any clearance adjudication expert or Federal employee/contractor off the street could have clarified for the media.
Which leaves security. Though it appears that Aaron Alexis had every right to be at the Navy Yard that day due to having a badge and being employed there, I have to be honest and state that although gate security is in no way implicated in this crime, myself and others who have been to the Navy Yard and many military installations in the DC metro area, feel that security is often too lax at times. I have personally been waved through the gate at the Navy Yard on several occasions with only my driver’s license being looked at or reason for being there rarely even challenged. I do not work on the Navy Yard, do not have any government stickers on my vehicle, and the reason for visiting was to pick up my children from a class that was being held at the museum on base. Sometimes gate security asked for my drivers license and asked me to explain why I was there, other times they did not. This happened this year over the course of 2 weeks. Granted, I may look like former military, if we have a look, and I did have a sticker on my window of my last held rank in the Marine Corps (Sgt) and USMC stickers on my rear window, but still. I’m not singling out the Navy Yard either, I and others I have talked to, have experienced similar at Andrews Air Force Base and other installations. I doubt it will happen again if DoD reads this however. There goes me getting to class on time. I am not alone in my belief that part of the reason for this lax security at the gates is due to the increased presence of civilians at the gate instead of military personnel. Nothing against the civilian security that man these posts, but it’s been my experience that Military Police who’ve gone through months of training and years of experience take this role more serious than 9-5 er’s being contracted to fill these positions. Again, though gate security was in no way indicated and Aaron Alexis had the right to be on the base, IF the discussion on what to do next is going to be serious, I think we should examine why the Department Of Defense is allowing more and more civilians to man the gates in lieu of Military Police.
At the end of the day, the sensationalism is getting sickening. It appears the media is not remotely concerned about preventing another tragedy through careful, though-provoking analysis, and factual data. In fact, I believe some of them deep down, long for something else of this nature to happen so they could have something else to report around the clock when this story fades, because we all know Syria was so last week and isn’t a story anymore, the Colorado flooding isn’t big enough to milk more than a few days, and the Debt Ceiling showdown is too boring and is typical Republicans versus Obama madness.
The real story when looking at Aaron Alexis, is his mental health. This guy had problems. It was documented and being treated by the VA. Everything else, is smoke and mirrors being presented for our entertainment. Are you not entertained? In order to focus on the topic of mental health and how it relates to guns and national tragedies we’d have to get around the projections that the media and lobbyists put forward and go behind the curtain. Most if not all of these killers have mental health problems, whether we label them terrorists or not. They display similar symptoms and some are being treated at the time of their crimes and others are not. Maybe it’s time to have a national discourse on these individuals and what we can do to help them. Maybe just maybe, Aaron Alexis was simply a mentally ill, unstable individual who fell through the cracks and nothing, not his religion, video games, discharge, or employment played a larger role than that. However, it’s more likely that purple unicorns will fly than the media focusing on this.