The Psychology of Hasan: The Ft. Hood Shooter
I’ve held off in writing anything about the tragic Ft. Hood shooting, allowing some time for details to emerge and for emotions to settle. Random acts of violence always leave us all scratching our heads, but sometimes the violence seems so extreme, the act so irrational, one can’t help but turn and ask, “Why did he do it?”
Major Nidal Malik Hasan is now apparently conscious and talking in his hospital bed, after being shot multiple times by Sgt. Kim Munley, a civilian police officer, who selflessly and heroically put herself in harm’s way in order to save countless of others’ lives. Munley is in stable but good condition and is very upbeat, according to news reports. Virginia Tech helped guide Munley’s aggressive response to Hasan’s shootings. “The lesson from Virginia Tech was, don’t wait for backup but move to the target and eliminate the shooter,” says Chuck Medley, chief of Fort Hood’s emergency services, telling the Christian Science Monitor. “It requires courage and it requires skill.”
It’ll be interesting to hear what Hasan has to say, but don’t be surprised if he sheds little new light on his actions. Criminals often justify their acts with rationalizations that make rational sense only to them.
What is clear is that Major Hasan was a troubled, conflicted individual. Some are calling him a terrorist, which means, literally, the systematic use of terror (a state of intense, extreme fear or anxiety), especially as a means of coercion. I’m not certain what Hasan was hoping to coerce by his actions — perhaps an end to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq? — and I’m not sure he was very systematic about it, since he chose a place where most of have never been, seen or knew much about (an Army training camp). But indeed, if his aim was to induce terror, I’m certain he was successful that day.
Hasan’s Increasing Opposition to the Wars
Hasan increased his opposition to the wars as his military career — and the wars — progressed (he entered the military before the wars). According to the most recent New York Times article, during the past five years, Hasan also began openly opposing the wars on religious grounds. But amongst the rank of doctors, opposition to war is not uncommon. After all, doctors see the bloody reality of war in their work every day. And Hasan — in his work as a psychiatrist as someone who sometimes saw and talked to veterans who returned from combat — likely understood the psychological and emotional toll such combat can have on a human being.
The New York Times also reports that over the past decade, Hasan had increasingly turned to his own religion, Islam, for answers. This is not uncommon for a person to do, especially after he lost both his parents within 3 years of one another in 2001. Combined with the terrorist attacks on the U.S. in 2001, instead of making Hasan more pro-American, it apparently turned him more pro-Islam. Ordinarily that wouldn’t be much an issue for most people. But it certainly could become an issue when you’re fighting two wars against people who are primarily Muslim.
The heart of the matter is this, however — Muslims serve with honor throughout the military, in society and in our government every day. While many of them object to the wars — just as many, many Americans in general do — most of them don’t take forceful, violent action with their objections.
Hasan Lacked Support, Conflicted About His Religion
Hasan was different. He psychologically had difficulty with accepting his conflicting roles as a Muslim and as someone who would be called upon to heal those who are actively fighting Muslims. (As a psychiatrist, while he may have indeed been in a combat zone, it’s unlikely he would’ve seen any direct action himself.) When most of us are seriously conflicted about major decisions in our lives, most of us take actions to find a solution to the conflict — we work it out with others, we talk to a professional, we seek guidance in our faith, friends and family.
Hasan apparently didn’t have a lot of friends and also doesn’t seem to have had much contact with his family. Social support — so important in keeping us connected with society and those around us — seemed to be seriously lacking in this man’s life. He sought others’ counsel and friendship, but apparently did little with the advice he was given and had only a few acquaintances.
Others have suggested motives and behaviors of Hasan that they could not have any direct knowledge of (for instance, how he worked with his patients he saw as a psychiatrist). I’ll leave such speculation where it belongs. Dr. Peter Breggin makes the ridiculous assertion that psychotherapists don’t get burned out, so one of the reasons that led to Hasan’s irrational actions was the fact that he was just another pill-prescribing, uncaring psychiatrist:
The psychiatrists [at Walter Reed] had no interest in anything except medicating their patients.
Modern psychiatry is not about counseling and empowering people. It’s about controlling and suppressing them, and that’s a dismal affair for patients and doctors alike. The armed forces have been taken in by the false claims of modern psychiatry.
By contrast, it’s not depressing to do psychotherapy or counseling. As therapists, it’s inspiring when people entrust their feelings and their life stories to us. There is no burn out when therapists feel concern and empathy for their patients and help them to find the strength and direction to reclaim their lives.
I’m not sure where Dr. Breggin is getting his information, but The New York Times noted that Hasan’s primary duty at Ft. Hood was the assessment of soldiers before deployment. In other words, Hasan wasn’t prescribing many medications. He was trying to determine the psychological fitness of soldiers before they left for combat duty. I find it a little unseemly to use a tragedy such as this to push one’s anti-psychiatry agenda (no matter how well-intended).
Hasan’s Steady Escalation Toward Action
In hindsight, the progression seems to make sense as he appeared to step up his religious observation and public objections to the war. One might say that the Internet postings attributed to him, if authenticated, were really cries for help and to be heard — “Look at me, I hate your war and am a loaded pistol just waiting to go off. Let me out of the service.” But investigators hadn’t progressed very far in examining whether to take the postings seriously and if they were even made by Major Hasan.
Between the on-base harassment for his religion, his denial of a request to be released from military service early (although it’s unclear he ever actually formally tried to do this), and his upcoming deployment to the theater of operations in the Middle East, combined with his own anti-war views and unapologetic religious beliefs all seemed to have led to this man committing the most tragic and irrational act imaginable.
As I’ve argued previously, such acts can never be fully understood or explained because at the core of it, they are irrational acts. Many people object to the war, but virtually none of us kill others to make that point. Many people, when they feel like they have no way out of their life and have lost all hope, turn to suicide. But for some reason, a very tiny percentage of people take that inward anger (depression) and turn it outward, against others, in an act like this one.
This isn’t to apologize for Major Hasan’s actions or try to minimize their impact. Indeed, what Hasan has done is to likely change the very way the military looks at its own base security and how it handles soldiers internally who seem to have significant issues that are not being successfully resolved. And perhaps — just maybe — it will again reinforce to the heads of our armed services, the vital impact mental health plays in soldiers’ lives. While it’s possible nothing could have changed the outcome of this particular tragedy, perhaps there are things we can learn to help prevent future such tragedies occurring.
Read more at: Fort Hood Gunman Gave Signals Before His Rampage
Grohol, J. (2009). The Psychology of Hasan: The Ft. Hood Shooter. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 14, 2016, from http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2009/11/09/the-psychology-of-hasan-the-ft-hood-shooter/