Magazine December 7, 2009, Issue

PC Unto Death

(Darren Gygi)
The Fort Hood massacre and the failure of courage that permitted it

Twenty years ago I was confronted by a patient who dressed in battle fatigues with a German flag sewn onto his sleeve — not a healthy sign, I thought. He had never been in the army, nor was he about to volunteer for it; he was, if anything, inclined to pudginess rather than to martial muscularity; his struggle was not with the enemies of his country but with daily life, and he sweated profusely from a deep and inextinguishable inner anxiety.

Far from being violent, he told me, he was a pacifist. Indeed, he was so pacifist that he was a firm vegetarian. Violence and cruelty to animals appalled him utterly; indeed, he felt so strongly about it, he said between gritted teeth, that he sometimes felt like going into his nearest supermarket (where I too shopped) and shooting everyone at the meat counter. I did not find it altogether reassuring that he had recently joined a gun club; but he had never so far been in trouble with the police.

For some time afterwards I lived in mortal fear of the news. One day, I thought, he would go into the supermarket and mow down the monstrous regiment of carnivores in the name of the Herbivore Liberation Front. Then it would come to light that he had consulted me several times and the question would naturally be asked why I, with the superhuman faculties granted to all doctors, had not stopped him. Why indeed?

The answer, I trust, is clear. He had as yet committed no crime; nor did what he felt like doing constitute the kind of definite threat against specific individuals that justifies a doctor’s breaking patient confidentiality and going to the police, who would in any case have regarded my information as mere tittle-tattle of little probative value. Protective custody is not a sanction known to the rule of law.

The case of Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan is surely rather different. The standard of proof of dangerousness necessary to take action against a soldier must surely be rather lower than that required to bring a criminal prosecution against a civilian. He was in frequent electronic contact with a man of known Islamist views, whose mosque he had once attended, whose sermons were eloquently bloodthirsty and for whom the shedding of blood was a religious duty; his colleagues had reported that he had said that, in his view, sharia law took precedence over the Constitution; he was loud in his opposition to the foreign policy of the country in whose armed services he served; and he had become more and more punctilious in his religious observances. I think even Dr. Watson would have been able to draw the inferences.

No doubt civil libertarians would here point out the problem of the false positive. For the sake of argument, let us suppose there are ten Army psychiatrists in contact by e-mail with Islamist fanatics, who believe in the precedence of sharia law, who oppose the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and who are increasingly punctilious in their religious observances. The fact that only one of them has indulged in a massacre would suggest that, if all of them had been dismissed, nine of them would have been dismissed unnecessarily and unfairly: and this would be an injustice and a breach of their human rights.

The initial official response to the events in Fort Hood showed just how deeply this kind of thinking has triumphed over the most elementary common sense. General Cone, the base’s commander, said, “What we’re looking for is people with personal problems, not at all related to their religion — not at all.” The Army’s chief of staff, General Casey, said, “What happened at Fort Hood is a tragedy, and I believe it would be a greater tragedy if diversity became a casualty here.”

What this appears to mean is that General Cone would not be worried by a soldier’s exhibiting all the signs that Major Hasan exhibited, provided only that he were happy, contented, and comfortable in his own skin: assuming, of course, that such a state of mind could be reliably recognized. And General Casey appears to have taken “We Are the World” as the theme song of the Army. It is right that there should be no racial prejudice, of course, but it is stupid to suppose that there should be no characteristics whatever that disqualify someone from serving. Must organizations embrace criminal lunatics in the name of diversity? For, of course, criminal lunatics are part both of the community and of life’s rich tapestry.

General Cone’s reaction implied that Major Hasan’s actions had nothing to do with the religious ideology that he espoused, and that his actions were therefore an emanation from some mysterious personal psychopathological swamp. That Major Hasan was a very troubled man is undoubtedly true; a more balanced person who opposed the wars, for example, would have found ways of doing so other than random massacre of erstwhile colleagues.

But when a man acts as Major Hasan did, it is obvious that he is in the grip of some general ideas, in this case those of militant Islamism. No merely Freudian neurotic ever went round shooting people and shouting “Allahu akbar!” There is thus in this case a terrible symbiosis between personal psychopathology and ideology: as, indeed, there would have been had the patient I have described above done what he said he would like to do.

Let us briefly consider a phenomenon that has nothing to do with Islam, one indeed that was militantly secularist and anti-religious: that of the Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka. For a time they were the world leaders in suicide bombings; they can be said to have invented the whole modern genre. They were also suicide bombing’s most successful practitioners, for they murdered presidents, prime ministers, and generals with the technique, as well, of course, as countless bystanders.

Apparently there was never a shortage of volunteers for the job: the ideological poison of the Tamil Tigers had worked its way pretty thoroughly into the body politic, and in any human group there are always people enough prepared to act extravagantly against their own interest, believing themselves thereby to be doing good when they are in fact committing the most obvious evil.

What is even more alarming, perhaps, is that the ideological poison spread very widely to middle-class and highly educated and no doubt politically moderate Tamils living abroad. Whatever the deficiencies of the Sri Lankan government, nothing could justify the manifest evil of the Tigers, which was as obvious as any such evil could be; yet thousands of Tamils abroad, who but for the ideology would never have dreamt of giving aid and comfort to murderers, and who in their day-to-day conduct were law-abiding and in their personal relations perfectly decent and reasonable, regularly demonstrated in the Tigers’ favor or supported them financially. As in any situation in which an unscrupulous extremist ideology spreads in a population, it became difficult to distinguish what was done voluntarily from what was coerced or the result of intimidation. It is almost impossible to get to the bottom of this question, since testimonies are so various and contradictory. But there is no doubt that evil in the name of a higher good has an attraction for much of mankind, particularly the intellectual part of mankind. You need certain powers of abstraction, after all, before you can justify the killing of people at random for the sake of a distant goal.

The difference between the Tamil Tigers and the Islamists, of course, is that the Tigers had a rather limited aim, at least in the first instance: an independent Marxist-Leninist homeland for Tamils in northern Sri Lanka. So while their crimes were horrible, individually as repugnant as any committed by Islamists, the threat that they posed, and the attraction that they exercised, was geographically and demographically limited. The rest of the world could afford to remain indifferent to them; but even so, the evil infected distant populations.

Islamism is more serious because it is a vastly more ambitious ideology and there are many more people susceptible to its siren song. Its demands could never be met, of course; viewed dispassionately, they are ludicrous. But reason plays a very restricted role in the beliefs of the disgruntled, however intelligent the disgruntled may be; two thousand years ago Cicero said that there was nothing so absurd that some philosopher has not already said it, and he might have added believed it too.

For someone like Hasan, who seems not to have been blessed with the kind of happy temperament that allows an easy passage through life, Islamism was both an answer to his problems and a problem in itself. On one hand, it satisfactorily explained the difficulties and humiliations that he had experienced while offering him a way to overcome them; on the other, it demanded of him that he be someone he was not, for example someone uninterested in, and not attracted to, the strip club that he visited shortly before his killing spree. For a lonely, self-absorbed egotist, unable properly to put his travails into any kind of perspective, this would have created an unbearable tension. What better way to resolve his tension than to kill himself (it is unlikely that he thought he would survive his spree) while giving vent to his hatred and rage in an ideologically acceptable way, which predictably made him a hero for his “spiritual” mentor, the imam Anwar al-Awlaki, whose sermons were also attended by some of the September 11 hijackers?

Hatred has always been the strongest political emotion and resentment the most durable; they are the emotions that effect the ideological and psychological transmutation of good into evil and evil into good. Islamism is far from the only ideology whose key is hatred, but it is the one that transformed Major Hasan from being a man in personal difficulty into being a horrifying criminal. I suspect that Generals Cone and Casey know this perfectly well.

– Mr. Dalrymple was a physician and psychiatrist to British prisoners.

 

Theodore DalrympleMr. Dalrymple, a retired doctor, is a contributing editor of City Journal and The New English Review. His next book, False Positive: A Year of Error, Omission, and Political Correctness in the New England Journal of Medicine, will be published in June.

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