A beard, it seems, can be a dangerous thing.
Yes, in the past few years, growing a mustache has become a symbol of charity, part of the fight against prostate cancer. But refusing to shave is also subversive. Artists and Hollywood types wear beards as a sort of facial snub to the mainstream. Pro athletes grow them for their intimidation factor. The devout in some faiths guard them as signs of spiritual authenticity, setting them apart from the secular world.
That could be why the U.S. military outlaws beards (only six soldiers have been exempted since 2009, for religious reasons). Prisons do too.
Beards are rare in the upper echelons of the corporate world. And with the notable exception of new NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair, they're almost non-existent in politics, although you have to hold out appreciation for Abraham Lincoln's memorably enhanced chin.
The cultural taint is ancient. In the Roman era, Julian the Apostate, Rome's last pagan emperor, grew a shaggy beard – explicitly, it's said, to thumb his nose at the clean-shaven Christians.
The beard still carries the power to offend, as shown by its role in two court cases this week.
In Ohio, 16 Amish men are standing trial for a religious hate crime. Their alleged offence? Chopping the chest-length beard of a rival sect member to within 1.5 inches of his chin during a brutal home invasion.
And in Texas, Major Nidal Malik Hasan – the U.S. army psychiatrist charged with killing 13 people and wounding 32 others in the 2009 Fort Hood shooting rampage – is fighting to keep his beard in prison.
Clean-shaven during his 24 years in the army, Major Hasan grew a beard this summer while in detention. He claims it was for religious reasons, and his lawyers told Colonel Gregory Gross, a military judge, that cutting it would contravene the precepts of Islam and his identity.
Col. Gross has not dismissed this claim outright. In a ruling issued Thursday, the judge said nothing about the apparent disconnect between Major Hasan's avowed desire to honour Islamic custom and his alleged willingness to commit the worst terrorist attack on American soil since 9/11.
But the judge did deny that forcing Major Hasan to go beardless would violate the U.S. Religious Freedom Restoration Act. That freedom may be infringed, he said, in cases where the government demonstrates compelling need – in this case, the need for Major Hasan to maintain a consistent appearance so he can be identified by potential witnesses.
The bottom line: Col. Gross has ruled that should Major Hasan face court martial for his alleged crimes, he must be clean-shaven. Should he decline to wield the blade himself, he will be forcibly shaved with electric clippers.
Major Hasan's lawyers are expected to appeal. But their pleas may be no match for facial hair's long trail of infamy.