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The Mysterious Motives Of Nidal Malik Hasan, Ft. Hood Shooter

November 17, 2009
Nidal Malik Hasan

The Ft. Hood Shooter.

United States Army Major Nidal Malik Hasan, the troubled military psychiatrist who killed a dozen fellow soldiers and one civilian at Ft. Hood, Texas on November 5, continues to spark heated discussion in the media and the blogosphere. Hasan is a Muslim and a US-born child of Palestinian parents, and in his professional capacity he “counselled soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with post-traumatic stress disorder”. So why, exactly, did Hasan choose to turn Ft. Hood into a shooting gallery? Was he striking a jihadist blow at one of the military nerve centres of the Great Satan, or did he somehow snap under the stresses of his profession?

Since Hasan is alive and capable of talking, although reportedly paralysed, there’s always the possibility that he’ll decide to explain himself. In the meantime, however, pundits have been having a field day. Particularly in the immediate wake of the massacre, it was easy to find articles that fastidiously breezed over any possible Islamic motivations but went on at great length about the horrors of battlefield trauma. A particularly fine specimen in the New York Times even flirted with the idea that Achilles “displayed a form of traumatic stress” outside the walls of Troy. Presumably it was a good thing for the Greeks that there was no psychiatrist on hand to treat Achilles, or he (the psychiatrist, not Achilles himself) would have gone berserk and probably bumped off half the army as they slept.

However, reports quickly emerged that Hasan had yelled “Allahu Akbar” at the beginning of the massacre, and that he had been known to espouse a concept of Islam with a hard, political edge that led him to sympathise with America’s enemies in Iraq and Afghanistan. This lent ammunition to pieces that criticised the initial batch of trauma-mongering articles for being naïve and ignoring the dangers of militant Islam in a misguided spirit of multicultural sensitivity. Charles Krauthammer described Hasan lecturing doctors and students about the punishments that would be visited on infidels in the afterlife, and then went on to write:

Nor was this the only incident. “The psychiatrist,” reported Zwerdling, “said that he was the kind of guy who the staff actually stood around in the hallway saying: Do you think he’s a terrorist, or is he just weird?”

Was anything done about this potential danger? Of course not. Who wants to be accused of Islamophobia and prejudice against a colleague’s religion?

Of course the “potential danger” is not Islam per se, but rather specific interpretations of Islam that have violent, anti-Western overtones (see this chilling, hilarious piece in the Independent for abundant insights into this mindset). Some of the trauma-mongers would probably argue that, even if this is a fair description of Hasan’s religious views, he might not have put them into murderous operation if he hadn’t been under psychological stress. Fair enough, but the other side of the coin is that he might have responded to the stresses very differently if he had been an atheist, a calmer variety of Muslim, or even a militant Christian with equally intense but differently directed religious obsessions.

Freakish incidents like the one at Ft. Hood don’t really change anything by themselves, but they can certainly concentrate minds. It’s not a bad time to ask whether something similar might happen in Canada – or, to put it more bluntly, whether we should be worried that there are fanatical Muslims lurking on our military bases, possibly capable of being driven to jihad-flavoured violence by the stresses that soldiers routinely experience.

As a starting point, it’s worth remembering that only a small percentage of our armed forces is Muslim, as someone called Cmdr. Denise LaViolette told the CBC in 2006:

She said there are only 648 people in the regular Canadian Forces from predominantly Muslim countries, out of a total roster of 62,500. Using those figures, the Muslim ratio is only about one per cent.

Obviously, not everyone from a predominantly Muslim country will be a Muslim; equally, some Muslims in our armed forces will come from non-Muslim countries, including Canada itself. Perhaps, on balance, “about one per cent” is about right. So what percentage of that one per cent are likely to be violent fanatics? And is it worth subjecting Muslim personnel, and new Muslim recruits, to special scrutiny in order to weed them out? I would suggest that the answers are “vanishingly small” and “probably not”, respectively, but I would also argue that it should be possible to discuss the issue in exactly these terms without being muzzled by the vengeful forces of political correctness. What do you think?

9 Comments leave one →
  1. November 20, 2009 11:14 pm

    Whenever we see incidents like this – of otherwise ‘normal’ people suddenly snapping – there is usually some irreconcilable inner conflict going on. And though it’s early days, it does seem apparent that this man’s conflict was between between his faith and identity as a Muslim, and a military culture in which the enemy of the day happened to be his own people.

    This might seem self-evident, but think about this. The official line of the U.S. and their allies has always been that their quarrel is not against Islam but against ‘terrorism’. However, I would be willing to bet that within a place like Ft. Hood, the prevailing culture would tend to be a little less fussy about making that distinction. And with someone like Hassan, born and raised in the U.S., with no accent or obvious physical characteristics to identify him as a Muslim, what sorts of things do you think he heard from his comrades regarding Muslims? Casual comments in the canteen? Racist remarks from his therapy patients?

    As much as they have tried to get past it, a large part of military training remains a process of dehumanizing the enemy – after all, how else can can you convince one human to kill another? But the problem remains: what does that do to a person after a while? What did it do to German-Canadians or Japanese-Americans in past wars? How do you reconcile your faith/identity and your duty when both insist that the other is evil?

    In the past, the solution to this paradox has been internment camps. Today… well, I’m not a military person, so perhaps I should stop here. It is late 🙂

    • corsullivan permalink*
      November 23, 2009 9:29 am

      That’s a good point – I’m sure that even moderate Muslims do encounter a degree of hostility in the US military, which must encourage the kind of inner conflict you’re talking about. The situation may be a little different in Canada, just because Canadian society in general is somewhat less religious and therefore less prone to religious tensions. Still, anti-Islamic sentiment is probably a factor in our military too.

      If we were in a straightforward war with a Islamic state over territory and resources, this would be problematic only (or at least mostly) because of the need to avoid alienating Muslim soldiers in our own ranks – but as things stand, success in Afghanistan depends on being able to get along with an overwhelmingly Muslim population. I guess this leaves us with the choice of trying to apply the dehumanisation process you mentioned to a narrower category of people, like active Taliban members, or trying to move our soldiers towards a more cold-blooded, Clausewitzian understanding of conflict in which killing is just a means to a political end. I would personally prefer the latter alternative, although admittedly it’s a tall order.

  2. John-Michael McColl permalink
    November 19, 2009 9:53 pm

    I always like thoughtful ventures outside the safety of political correctness. I think you are bold to bring this up. I do not think it is unreasonable to consider deeply-seated religious convictions when we select people for high-stress occupations and arm them with lethal weapons.

    However, the danger of this kind of thinking lies in the idea of singling out any specific devotion, radical Muslim or otherwise. It may be true that people with “equally intense but differently directed religious obsessions” would have reacted differently than Mr. Hasan in his particular situation, but it’s wrong to infer they would thus be better suited for military service.

    For starters, I haven’t seen any evidence to suggest that belief systems influence emotional responses. I mean, are middle-aged female Sikhs quicker to anger than middle-aged female Jews? Ceteris paribus, one could perhaps argue that culture influences behavior patterns – but your post is about religion so let’s stick to that.

    My contention is that it isn’t the particular flavor of your intense religious obsession that should be scrutinized, it’s the fact that you have an intense religious obsession. I’ll go one further and say that I don’t think it should even matter whether the obsession is religious or not – Timothy McVeigh reminds us that secular obsessions are just as powerful. I think it takes a certain kind of person to develop and nurse an intense obsession, and those kind of people are probably not best-suited for our armed forces. Not that they are dangerous or bad – I just think they are less likely to act, or react, in the same way less-intense people would.

    Of course you can always argue that an intensely devout Buddhist would plausibly respond to stress differently than Mr. Hasan did. However, that doesn’t mean the intensely devout Buddhist would make a better soldier. Just imagine it.

    War is traumatic, and managing soldier’s reactions and emotions is an incredibly difficult and important challenge. When people break down unexpectedly, the results can be explosive. When screening recruits, it is important to consider markers, like intense religious devotion, that indicate a divergent approach to dealing with the world and its stresses.

    As more evidence comes to light, it’s becoming clearer that Mr Hasan’s most salient characteristic was not his chosen faith, but the fact that he was not a well-adjusted person. That said, I hope it’s not unfair of me to point out that some people who struggle with the chaos and stresses of life sometimes find solace by immersing themselves in devotion to higher secular or religious ideals. We should consider that when handing out guns.

    • corsullivan permalink*
      November 20, 2009 4:03 am

      I agree that secular obsessions can be just as potentially dangerous as religious ones, but I think the content of the obsession can make a big difference and is worth paying attention to. A personality that can nurture a strong obsession is somewhat unusual by definition, but whether this makes a person an unsuitable soldier in itself seems arguable. Does obsessiveness, as a character trait, really correlate with a tendency to break down violently under pressure? I’m not enough of a psychologist to know the answer.

      However, it does seem clear that some obsessions are worse than others, in a military context. An obsession with drill, discipline and order could actually be quite handy, or at least not in conflict with the basic spirit of military life. And there are, as it happens, lots of Christians in the US armed forces whose level of belief and radicalism may not be all that much lower than Nidal Hasan’s – see this article for instance. This is certainly a problem for the US military, but at least the Christian soldiers tend to see the wars they’re fighting as compatible with their religion. If they were Islamic zealots who sympathised with the Taliban, however, they might become a very real fifth column.

      Fortunately, even exceptionally devout Muslims don’t necessarily root for the Taliban. The ones that do are probably a very small minority, at least in Canada, and they’re hardly likely to want to join the military in the first place. Accordingly, I don’t see any reason to subject Muslim recruits to special scrutiny to determine whether they might be anti-Western radicals, especially since having a few Muslims in the ranks presumably comes in handy when dealing with the local population in Afghanistan and other Islamic countries. From this point of view, it would be counterproductive to implement policies that would discourage them from joining up. But when clear warning signs of involvement with radical Islam start to emerge, as they did with Hasan, I think the chain of command should take a responsible interest in finding out exactly what is going on in the mind of the soldier in question. And when signs of radical Islam and signs of a troubled personality go together, there’s every reason to intervene before trouble starts.

  3. November 18, 2009 1:58 am


    We have read with concern the many signs Major Hasan provided which would indicate an unstable and potentially dangerous frame of mind. Our concern is that those who actually saw and heard the signs and those to whom the signs were reported did not act upon them. From Hasan’s contact with a radical imam, to the initials SoA (Son of Allah) on his business card, to his comment that he was a Muslim first and a soldier second – there is no doubt the signs that he was potentially dangerous were there for all to see.

    Furthermore, he was under surveillance by two Terrorist Task Forces, one with Department of Defense oversight and the other with FBI oversight. So why wasn’t he stopped?

    The answer is quite simple – The military does not have an objective and culturally neutral system that collects information and evaluates it to determine the degree (or level) of aggression an individual is displaying, nor has it people who have a clear responsibility to observe and report this information within an objective system nor a team who is responsible to evaluate it and respond. The military does not have the AMIS solution and it desperately needs it! Major Hasan has illustrated out vulnerable we are, learn more about the problem and the solution by reading our Blog:

    • corsullivan permalink*
      November 20, 2009 2:52 am

      I wouldn’t agree, though, that Hasan was “displaying aggression” simply by showing a commitment to radical Islam. Perhaps this should have been recognised as a potential motivator for future aggression, but that’s a somewhat different kettle of fish. In my opinion, reducing the issue to “aggression management” is counterproductive because attention should be focused more on the underlying factors, in this case religious ones, that might lead soldiers to begin feeling aggressive towards their comrades in the first place.

      • November 20, 2009 4:18 am

        Thank you for your comment, corsullivan. The foundation of Aggression Management is a continuum: a progression from benign to violent. A Study conducted by the US Secret Service and the Dept. of Education determined that measuring emerging aggression is the only effective means to identify a shooter prior to their Moment of Commitment when the pull their weapon and start shooting, in other words the precursors to violence. However, objective and culturally neutral observables are not in themselves enough. This is why we have our Judicious Interview, which determines their “intent.” The word “intent” is very powerful because it takes you right to the core of a person’s motivation. If you have more of an interest you can read more on my blog;

  4. November 17, 2009 2:02 pm

    Dear C,
    Forewarend is forearmed.
    The Queen of Parsing (that’s neither the leafy green veg, very good for you nor the venerable religion/culture, Pharsi)
    broods over this piece.

    • corsullivan permalink*
      November 18, 2009 10:03 pm

      “Captain, the instruments detect intense parsing activity ahead!”

      “Thank you, Mr Spock. Raise the shields to deflect unwelcome questions, and prepare to conceal our true position with massive clouds of obfuscation.”

      Just kidding, of course. I always welcome your incisive parsing, provided you keep the critical distinctions clear in your mind and don’t send any parsley-wielding Pharsis (or Pharisees) after me by mistake.

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