Almost four years after he walked into a pre-deployment processing centre inside Fort Hood in Texas and opened fire killing 13 people and injuring dozens more, former Medical Corps officer Nidal Malik Hasan will finally face justice today on the first day of a military court martial that is likely to last months.
While the run-up to it has been tortuous, marked by repeated delays and controversies, the trial itself is likely to generate instant high drama not least because Major Hasan, who faces a possible death sentence in the case, will be representing himself. It is likely, therefore, that he will be given the chance to cross-examine any witnesses called by the prosecution, including many of those whom he shot but who survived.
The first of these exchanges, as poignant as they will be painful, may come as early today if, as expected, the prosecution opens by calling Staff Sgt. Alonzo Lunsford to describe his own experience coming face to face with the accused, being shot in the face by him and saving himself first by playing dead and then by running through an exit but not before being shot several more times in the back.
Described in a US Senate report as the “worst terrorist attack on US soil since September 11, 2001”, the rampage also stands as the deadliest mass shooting ever seen on a US military facility. It began when Maj. Hasan strode into the processing centre, where soldiers were receiving jabs ahead of a deployment to Afghanistan, allegedly shouted ‘Allahu Akbar’, God is Great, twice and then began shooting.
Facing 13 counts of premeditated murder and 32 counts of attempted premeditated murder, Maj. Hassan is in a wheelchair because of injuries suffered when military police took him down. He has not denied being the shooter. The legal skirmishes that delayed the trail ranged from his refusal to shave his beard, to his attempts – both thwarted by the court – to enter a plea deal to avoid facing a possible death penalty and to present a defence stating that he acted to defend Taliban fighters in Afghanistan from US aggression.
Sgt Lunsford, who was shot seven times and remains blind in one eye, spoke out this week about being forced now to face off with Maj. Hasan in court. “I will be cross-examined by the man who shot me,” he told the New York Times. “You can imagine all the emotions that are going to be coming up.” He spoke also of his need to remain composed. “It was seven times this man tried to kill me. I took that personally,” he said in another interview. “The toughest part is trying to control my anger.”
He and some of the other survivors and relatives of those who died have filed a lawsuit against the US government claiming that the authorities had been aware before the attack that Maj. Hasan had radical Islam views and supported Jihad against the United States and did nothing to confront or discipline him. Among indicators were email conversations he had with Anwar Awlaki, the US-born al-Qa’ida operative in Yemen who was killed in a US drone attack last year.
As the trial begins, the stakes are high for military prosecutors whose task is not just to attain a conviction and a death sentence but to do so without giving Maj. Hasan material with which to appeal. Assuming a conviction is achieved a process of appeals is nonetheless inevitable and will be likely to take years. In that circumstance, it is unlikely that Maj. Hasan would face an executioner in the even in medium-term future.