Faith or Trauma: Questioning the Motivation of the Fort Hood Shooter

Major Nidal Hasan is undergoing social construction in the American mainstream media. Here we have a man who engaged in mass killing, a type of event we experience every few years in the United States. Questions abound as to what drove him to commit these acts, but a rush to connect his actions with Islamic extremism is irresponsible.

Major Hasan enlisted and became an active duty Army officer in 1997. He had to have known by then that there was a possibility he would be sent to a base in the “Middle East.” He had to have thought about and reconciled the personal meaning of serving in the American military and clearly made a decision he could live with. He must have been recognized early on for his abilities: the Army put him through medical school, psychiatric specialization training, and medical residency.

Major Hasan spent the entire course of residency and subsequent professional life listening to and counseling veterans returning from war in Iraq and Afghanistan at Walter Reed Army Hospital. One can only imagine the impact of this experience on him.

According to my colleague at Marquette University, Ramon Hinojosa, himself a former member of the US military and now a researcher on Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome among Iraq war vets, “there is data that suggest that repeatedly hearing traumatic stories can traumatize the professional.” Hinojosa recalls the work of Rebecca Campbell, whose book on researching rape demonstrates that hearing rape stories is linked to depression in researchers.

Speaking from his own research, Hinojosa adds,

Several of the men talked about gruesome images of body parts, what it felt like to shoot at and kill other human beings, and what it smelled like after. As a researcher, these images have stuck with me. PTSD counselors like Hasan have heard horrific tales of mutilated, burnt, broken, and torn bodies. They’ve heard soldiers discuss seeing children disemboweled by bombs and small arms fire. He, better than others, knew what he would likely face once he was deployed, and it may have been too much for him.

From what we know now, Major Hasan discovered that he was personally unable to serve in the war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan and tried to leave the military, but faced deterrents. His options would have been medical discharge, going AWOL (resulting in dishonorable discharge and losing benefits), or being expelled for misconduct. We also know that he reported facing harassment. On the eve of deploying to Afghanistan, he exploded, killing 13 persons and injuring more than two dozen others. It is unlikely he thought he would survive, given the location of his deadly actions.

The mainstream press, however, is focusing on a different angle. It reports that Major Hasan is a Muslim who prayed regularly, attended a mosque, and had something in Arabic hanging on his door. A November 6 Washington Post headline reads, “Suspect, devout Muslim from Va., wanted Army discharge, aunt said.” This explanatory variant for the attacks leads one to his religion, not his experiences.

It is difficult to discern whether Major Hasan’s religious faith has become the object of all this attention because it is assumed that deeply religious people don’t engage in killing, or because it is assumed that deeply religious Muslims are driven by religion to kill. Either way a complex and tragic human story has been rendered into yet another simple case of Islam = violence. This story is tragic for many; in particular for those killed and their families who deserve a better explanation, one that does not simply sweep aside the tragedy of war and the damage it does to those who engage in it.

Another line of argument seeks to tie Major Hasan’s actions to Al-Qaeda and suicide bombings. For example, reported on November 6: “Federal law enforcement officials told The Associated Press that Hasan had come to their attention at least six months ago because of [note the word “his” is absent] Internet postings that discussed suicide bombings. The officials said they are still trying to confirm that [they could have said “determine whether”] he was the author.” The language of this report, by removing certain words and choosing others, is intended to imply that Major Hasan is responsible for postings in support of suicide bombings, when in fact the real story is that someone with the same name as him made such postings, and that as of yesterday law enforcement officials had not been able to confirm it was him. The overall intent of the piece is: focus on Islam as the explanation.

What does one make of Major Dr. Hasan’s faith? It is possible that the day in and day out, for years upon end, hearing of stories of vets returning from war drove him to seek spiritual peace. It is plausible that he looked to religion to find this peace. My own study of the Muslim American experience after 9/11 found such a pattern. The majority of persons I interviewed told me their religious faith increased during the period of backlash and government targeting after 9/11 and many who had not been religious in the past became religious. Their faith increased because they were looking for answers, because they needed a pillar of support, and because they wanted to believe that justice would someday prevail.

The media’s coverage of these killings thus far appears to be another effort to reduce complexity to stereotype, to demonize Islam, and to shift the focus of public thought away from a deep questioning about war, American military activity, and the damage these are doing to people (including “our own” people), and to refocus it on the ubiquitous, evil “them.”