Just finished Christopher Browning’s “Ordinary Men”, the classic study of a Nazi police battalion that murdered some 83,ooo Jews in 1941-43.
Browning found that most of the German policemen , who shot infants in the head at point-blank range, were not Nazis. Most were middle-aged men who came from Hamburg, a city that had been staunchly anti-Nazi during Hitler’s rise to power. In short, this battalion of older, working-class Germans were the last people you would expect to become mass murderers.
And now we come to Fort Hood shooter Nidal Malik Hasan. What does a Nazi murder unit have to do with a Muslim psychiatrist-turned-killer? Simply the fact that sane, respectable people can commit evil acts. Some experts believe that post-traumatic stress disorder caused Hasan to murder 13 soldiers, even though he hadn’t served in combat and hadn’t been deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan (he did have to listen to horrible stories from his patients, but then so do many psychiatrists and policemen, and most don’t commit mass murder).
The point isn’t that PTSD or other mental health issues were not primary causes for Hasan’s attack. The point is that people can commit evil acts for a variety of reasons, even if they aren’t mentally ill. If it’s wrong to assume Hasan’s act was some demonic manifestation of Islamic ideology, then it’s equally wrong to assume that this was merely a failure of military mental health screening. It may be that jihadist ideology and Hasan’s personal issues were mixed into a toxic brew in Hasan’s troubled mind. But a lot of soldiers will have troubles, regardless of how much counseling we offer them. If Islamic ideology is a catalyst than can drive them to murder their comrades while shouting “Alahu Akhbar!”, then we need to ask if other soldiers are vulnerable to this and what we can do about it. Give Muslim soldiers the option of leaving the service? That’s un-American and exactly what the jihadists would like us to do.
There will not be an easy answer. But denying human free will is not an answer. Major Nidal Malik Hasan had choices, and he made his choice.