Tragedy in Texas
Death on Base: The Fort Hood Massacre
by Anita Belles Porterfield and John Porterfield
Denton: University of North Texas Press, 2015
384 pp. $29.95 cloth
J. Pete Blair
In the early afternoon hours of November 5, 2009, an army major with radical Islamist beliefs attacked Fort Hood in Killeen, Texas, killing thirteen and wounding nearly three dozen more. Investigations following the attack revealed numerous failings on the part of the army to deal with an officer who was obviously deficient at his job and growing more radicalized in his beliefs.
Death on Base: The Fort Hood Massacre by Anita Belles Porterfield and John Porterfield is meticulously researched and engaging. Particularly powerful are the accounts of the attack and the efforts to help the wounded immediately following the attack. I was familiar with the shooting before reading the book, but learned several new things. For example, while I was aware the shooter attempted to contact terrorist organizations, I did not know he received responses from al Qaeda recruiter Anwar al Awalaki. I was aware the shooter had a sub-par service record, but I was unaware of just how poor his performance had actually been. All of that being said, the book occasionally drags when presenting details about the assailant’s life.
A substantial portion of the book is a detailed look into the life of the shooter and his slide into radicalism. The authors connect the characteristics and life of the Fort Hood attacker to other mass killers. A familiar profile emerges. Rampage killers tend to be socially unskilled and have “avenger” type mentalities. They feel they have been wronged and generally lack the social skills/support networks needed to deal with the perceived wrong. In the Fort Hood case, the attacker felt that the United States was at war against Islam, had harmed innocent Muslims, and treated him and other Muslims with disrespect. This inability to deal with the perceived wrong leads the attacker to become more and more enraged, entering a downward spiral until the attacker sees violence as the only solution. Often, there is an event that preceeds the attack, but rarely is the attack itself spontaneous. In the case of the Fort Hood murderer, his pending deployment to Iraq appears to have been the spark that ultimately precipitated the assault, but his downward spiral had begun long before.
It is this focus on the attacker that ultimately leaves me torn about the book. The book is well written and presents an accurate account, yet I fear that it gives the attacker what he ultimately wanted, that is, widespread recognition of his personal life and grievances. We know from other mass shooters’ manifestos and press kits that they felt that no one was paying attention to them, and the attack was a way to make people acknowledge their grievances. I worry that giving so much attention to the killer may serve to motivate others. Yet, there is also value in gaining a deeper understanding of these people and what motivated them. This understanding could ultimately be used to prevent future massacres. This book certainly identifies numerous points at which actions by the attacker’s superiors could have interrupted his downward spiral and, thus, have potentially prevented the violence.
While some attention is paid to the heroes and victims, I would have liked to have had even more information. Ultimately, I leave it to the reader to decide what is the proper balance. You may have noticed I have not named the shooter throughout this review. This is intentional. I have no desire to provide any recognition or notoriety to those who commit these atrocities. I encourage others to do the same. Perhaps by removing or eliminating one of the motivators for committing these acts, we can avoid encouraging others.
J. Pete Blair is a Professor of Criminal Justice and Executive Director of the Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training (ALERRT) Center at Texas State University. His research involves the study of active shooter events and police response. He presents on both topics to audiences around the country and internationally including the FBI, International Association of Chiefs of Police, Canadian Association of Police Chiefs, and the Texas Association of School Boards.