I was very disturbed to hear of the attack at Fort Hood, Texas. At first I assumed it was a disturbed soldier who was undergoing treatment for PTSD or some other mental illness. This would not have made the attack any more palatable, but it would have offered a reason or explanation that I could rationalize and accept.
But when I discovered that the shooter was in fact a Major in the U.S. Army, and a psychiatrist as well, I was simply left numb. As a veteran, and as someone who is training to enter into the mental health profession, I simply could not reconcile how a field grade officer and a psychiatrist could open fire on unarmed fellow soldiers and civilians. What went wrong?
As more information is released about the Nidal Malik Hasan a disturbing picture is developing of a man who was both incredibly conflicted by the role he accepted as a US Army officer, and by his faith as a Muslim. He was also traumatized by the deaths of his parents, and reportedly harassed by others in the community for his faith. While these circumstances may explain his desire to leave the Army, or his self isolation, they do not account for his act of mass murder.
A more likely explanation, which seems to be supported by his actions prior to the shootings, is that his internal conflict and the trauma of his parents deaths combined with his immersion into his religion to create a system of beliefs that motivated him to commit mass murder and suicide.
We do not know what, precisely, these beliefs were (or are, as he survived the incident), but we can make some educated guesses about their nature:
There appears to have been a sense of hopelessness in Hasan’s thinking, perhaps brought on by his inability to secure an early release from his military obligation. Feeling stuck in the Army, and therefore in the internal conflict between service to country and service to God, Hasan may have felt it necessary to choose between the two and take drastic action.
This feeling of hopelessness may have been fueled by the harassment he reportedly received for being Muslim, and by what he seems to have perceived as an unjust war against his religion.
In short, Hasan’s reality, created by his beliefs and perceptions, could have painted a world in which he was in a hopeless situation. He was internally conflicted, felt harassed, and perceived his religion and his identity as being under assault.
Motivated by belief
The shooting at Fort Hood is an example of how our beliefs can distort our realities, leading to catastrophic results.
Even though we cannot say for certain that the picture I have painted above is accurate, it is safe to say that Hasan was living in a reality where the best option available to him was a suicide attack on the largest U.S. Army base in the world.
Many in the US will jump to the conclusion that Islam is to blame, and perhaps there will be a backlash against Muslims in the military and elsewhere. These actions will only serve to fuel the circle of hatred that may have been at the heart of this attack, and of other terrorist attacks worldwide.
This cycle is reinforced by beliefs about the motivations and natures of Islam and Christianity. Muslims believe the War on Terror is a war against Islam, and Christians believe that terrorist attacks on the West are aimed at destroying the Christian way of life. Taken to the next extreme, Christians may begin to believe that all Muslims are terrorists, and Muslims may begin to believe that all Christians are murderers seeking to overrun the Islamic Holy Lands.
Islam is in fact a beautiful religion that preaches brotherhood and peace. It is far more tolerant of other religions than Christianity. Yet, this peaceful and tolerant religion is used by radicals and militants to justify the most atrocious of acts. And many Christians are now viewing a geopolitical conflict in a religious light as well.
Such is the power, and danger, of belief. The beliefs on both sides use religions, which preach peace and goodwill to fellow humans, as justifications for war and atrocity.
So how do we stop the cycle?
Heartfelt beliefs tend to result in emotional thinking. When emotional thinking takes over we are often not even aware of the beliefs that are creating our realities. We tend to be able to see only the “evidence” that reinforces our model of the world, and discard anything that may contradict our beliefs as “propaganda” or “not true.” In the extreme, this kind of rationalizing becomes delusional.
The only way to stop the cycle is to somehow become aware of the beliefs and emotions that are driving our thinking, and be able to step back and consider other possibilities. In short, re-introduce rationality into the thinking pattern.
When treating patients with delusional thinking patterns the most often used method is to ask subtle questions that may cause the patient to rethink their reality and consider alternate possibilities. This is done very carefully, without directly confronting the patient’s delusions, which risks a defensive or even violent reaction. For instance, if a patient tells a story about someone looking at them in a grocery store, and interprets the action as someone judging them, the therapist may ask the client if there is any other reason a person may look at them at the store, and help the patient come up with alternative and plausible explanations.
Likewise, when we are dealing with people with extreme beliefs we may employ a similar method to attempt to help them view a given situation from a different perspective. It is not important that the person accept the different perspective as valid, but that they at least consider it. By considering different perspectives over time, the mind is trained to be more accepting of possibilities, and the person becomes less rigid in their beliefs.
For ourselves, we must learn to recognize when our beliefs become primarily driven by our emotions and be able to take a step back and consider other possibilities as well. This can be done effectively in our daily meditation, and becomes easier with practice. By working towards removing rigidity from beliefs we become more capable of dealing with diversity, and adversity. We also learn to create harmony in our lives by learning to accept other perspectives without feeling threatened. Our life becomes more rich and fulfilling.
We may even learn to seek help when we are feeling overwhelmed, instead of acting out in destructive ways that lead to tragedy.