Maj. Nidal Hasan and many of his victims in the Fort Hood shooting seem to want the same thing — his death. But while survivors and relatives of the dead view lethal injection as justice, the Army psychiatrist appears to see it as something else — martyrdom.
As the sentencing phase begins Monday following Hasan’s conviction for killing 13 people in the 2009 attack, the conflict has not gone unnoticed.
Autumn Manning, whose husband, Shawn Manning, survived being shot six times, views the death penalty as a double-edged sword. On the one hand, Hasan would get what he deserves. On the other, it also gives him exactly what he wants.
In the end, she said, it makes little difference because the military has not executed anyone since the 1960s.
“So we know he will die in prison. So at that point, my mind changed because I’d like to see him suffer,” Manning said. “He’s already considered a martyr in the Middle East or wherever those jihadist views are accepted.”
Hasan’s courtroom silence, his refusal to cross-examine almost any witness and his decision to present no defense infuriated the civilian attorneys he fired earlier in the case in favor of representing himself. They had been ordered to remain in court to help Hasan if needed.
The attorneys protested, telling the judge he had a death wish and was paving the way for his own execution. The judge rejected their request to take over the case or to leave Hasan on his own.
Hasan, a U.S.-born Muslim of Palestinian descent, has indicated that martyrdom is a goal.
“I’m paraplegic and could be in jail for the rest of my life,” he told a military panel in 2010, according to documents his lawyer recently released to The New York Times. “However, if I died by lethal injection, I would still be a martyr.”
Kathy Platoni, who has struggled for nearly four years with the image of Capt. John Gaffaney bleeding to death at her feet on the day of the shooting, wrestles with conflicting emotions about Hasan’s sentence.
“On the one hand, the ultimate punishment is death, but in Hasan’s religious convictions this is what he seeks,” Platoni said. “So many of us also feel, ‘Why give him what he wants?’ He needs to be given a punishment that he didn’t choose ... The ultimate punishment is for him to live out the rest of his life in prison.”
Martyrdom manifests itself in the Islamic holy book, the Quran, in two ways, said Emran El-Badawi, director of the Arab studies program at the University of Houston.
The shahid — or martyr — is adopted in one sense from Christianity and other early religions as someone who dies for the faith and goes to paradise alongside prophets and saints. Martyrs also appear in the Quran as fallen soldiers or those who died in battle, he said.
Later, in the 9th and 10th centuries, the idea of martyrdom evolved to include people who died accidentally, such as in a fire. But only in the past century have some Muslims regarded those who die in jihad, or holy war, as martyrs, El-Badawi said.
“They feel that they are defending the faith,” he said. “And this is, I think, the most extreme interpretation of what a martyr is in Islam.”
This modern concept of a martyr “is incoherent. It is unstandardized, and it is messy,” El-Badawi said, but it has been exploited by extremist groups like al-Qaida to encourage suicide attacks, even though some of Islam’s most prominent religious leaders have condemned this type of warfare.
Hasan apparently communicated with some al-Qaida leaders prior to the attack on the Army post and has repeatedly stated that the rampage was designed to prevent U.S. soldiers from going to fight in unjust wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Hasan was to be deployed with some of the troops he killed.
“If you in fact execute ... and then put to death potential suicide bombers ... aren’t you in fact fueling the flames and giving them what they want?” El-Badawi asked. “However, I think there is a rule of law and it needs to be followed. And it’s more important to follow the rule of law and that we all stand behind it rather than be concerned what the desire of these extremist Muslims might be.”
Alonzo Lunsford, who was shot seven times, understands that Hasan’s goal is to be viewed as “a fighter for his people — as if he’s a god.”
If he gets the death penalty, potential martyrdom is “a cost that comes with that,” Lunsford said. “But I can live with that cost. I can live with that cost because that’s how our system of government works, and that’s how our justice system works.”
Howard Ray, a retired staff sergeant who said he was just inches from several of Hasan’s bullets, said no matter how or when Hasan dies, some will view him as a martyr.
“Does it happen now or in 40 to 50 years when he dies in prison? Once he dies in 50 years, it’s going to be the same. He still died for the cause,” Ray said. “There’s justice that has to be met, and I think the way it can be met is through the death penalty.”