Joe Klein and I Argue, Sort of, About Nidal Hasan

My friend and former colleague Joe Klein has had some strong things to say about the Ft. Hood massacre -- and about people who argue that this is a clear-cut case of, in Daniel Pipes' words, "sudden jihad syndrome." I asked Joe a question about his views, and we had the following e-mail conversation:

Jeffrey Goldberg: You wrote last week, "There are today several odious attempts by Jewish extremists.... to argue that the massacre perpetrated by Nidal Hasan was somehow a direct consequence of his Islamic beliefs as opposed to a direct consequence of his insanity." Do you still believe that this case is primarily about mental illness, or have you seen anything to suggest that Nidal Hasan did what he did mainly because he is a self-radicalized jihadist?

Joe Klein: Jeff--I think my initial reaction last week, in part, was a knee-jerk response to the "they're all terrorists" line about Muslims I hear so often from everyone ranging from neoconservatives to close friends and family members. But my bottom line remains the same. Clearly, Hasan was attracted to Islamic radicalism and that has to be considered part of the calculus of motivations for his act. But, the primary motivating force? I doubt it. There are three other factors that I think are more important:

1. He was nuts. If this was an act of war, why was the violence disproportionately concentrated on people he knew--fellow therapists and mental health workers who were not about to go off killing Muslims. The act itself has far more in common with a schoolyard shooting spree than a suicide bus-bombing. There was nothing tactical about it. The overwhelming majority of terrorist acts are directed against people the killer does not know. I'm not sure what the appropriate psychiatric term is, but shooting your co-workers puts you in a different mental ballpark from Khalid Sheik Mohammed, even if you try to put a more ideological--and self-deluding--face on it by shouting, "Allahu Akhbar." It's quite possible that he was a nut who used ideology as a delusional rationale for his craziness.
2. I think that his actual work with PTSD and traumatic brain injury patients, hasn't been given sufficient attention as part of the cocktail of motivations. I've done a fair amount of research in this area, including a book (Payback: Five Marines After Vietnam) about the effects of this kind of warfare on human beings. One thing that has struck me is how much more severe the psychological traumas coming out of Iraq and Afghanistan are--more severe even than those from Vietnam. This is attributable, in large part, to the brilliance of field medicine. Soldiers are surviving after far more serious injuries than ever before. Indeed, we are on the frontier of brand new psychological dilemmas: soldiers having to come to terms with multiple amputations, serious brain injuries. These are horrific wounds and catastrophic levels of anguish. I can't imagine the strength needed to minister to these on a daily basis. Clearly, Hasan didn't have that strength.

3. ... No doubt, because of his immediate experiences, Hasan came to believe a disproportionate number of people who went to war came home as basket cases. It seems quite likely that he was scared witless by this, scared beyond the breaking point. It is entirely possible that he was more terrified than terrorist. But... There remains the attraction of jihadi theology. You can't rule it out of the calculus. And yes, there is the eternal question of whether Islam is fundamentally different from other religions because Mohammed was the only prophet to personally take up the sword. (Our boy, Moses, had Yahweh take up the sword for him.) You can't dismiss this evil. I have no patience for those who would deny that we're in a long-term struggle against some really bad actors who need to be wiped out. I'm in favor of the campaign against Al Qaeda. I'm in favor of the Predators. I'm in favor of Israel's right to defend itself, within the limits of reason, by taking proportionate action against Hamas in Gaza and by seizing arms shipments from Iran intended to bolster Hizballah. In any case, I find myself too entangled in the horrific complications of the case to be able to label it, simply, as an act of jihad.

JG: Unlike you, I'm not having too much trouble labeling the Ft. Hood massacre -- at least provisionally -- an act of jihad. I'm not suggesting that nothing else except some lunatic jihadist impulse explains the shooting. I don't doubt this man was a misfit, and though I don't believe in such a phenomenon as pre-traumatic stress syndrome, I think it is plausible to believe that Nidal Hasan was afraid to enter a war zone (even though he would be entering it as a non-combatant). But I'm going to stick with Occam's Razor on this one: When a devout Muslim who refers to himself as a Soldier of Allah picks up two handguns, yells "Allahu Akbar," and shoots fifty American military personnel, I don't think I'm climbing out on a limb to label him a self-created, self-radicalized jihadist. When a Muslim who is not in American uniform commits this sort of violence against American military personnel, we tend to think of the act as a religiously-inspired act of terrorism. Maybe you're right, maybe it's far more complicated than this. But right now I don't think so.
By the way, when a Jewish person in Israel commits mass murder of Arabs, we don't spend a great deal of time looking for alternate explanations. Baruch Goldstein, the author of the Hebron massacre, was, in fact, a medical doctor who may or may not have been traumatized by the violence committed against his fellow Jewish settlers by Palestinian extremists. But so what? Murder is murder, and political murder is political murder. I'm sure you would say that Goldstein was primarily motivated by a hateful ideology. Or am I wrong? Is the Goldstein analogy not correct here?

JK: Unlike you, I don't know all that much about Baruch Goldstein, although he walked into the Tomb of the Patriarchs and murdered a whole bunch of people he didn't know...which is much closer to a pure act of terrorism than Hasan's murder of his colleagues (and, yes, others he did not know). But Jeff, I really don't understand your need for simplicity here. Nor do I understand the policy implications. If this was, as you say, an act of jihad--what are they? To me, the only reasonable policy implication is a narrow one: Even though it is badly in need of skilled therapists to deal with the tide of PTSD and brain injury cases, the U.S. military has to be far more vigilant when it comes to who is treating our troops. A second policy implication seems obvious: No jihadist fellow-travelers need apply. The military should be open to the vast majority of American Muslims who are loyal to our country and abhor jihadism--but those who express suspicious views, as Hasan did, should be discharged. The politically correct notion that you shouldn't discharge someone because of his or her views doesn't apply to those in the military whose views are sympathetic to our enemies.
To sum up: Why is simplicity so important in a situation that is so obviously complicated? And what are the policy implications of that simplicity?

JG: Point taken, though I think what I'm asking for is not simplicity so much as proper ordering, or weighing, of the causes of Hasan's murder spree. I have no doubt that all men who commit acts of violence like this do so for multiple reasons, but I suspect -- and, again, we don't know everything we're going to eventually know about this case -- that the adoption of Islamism as an ideology by this man explains much more about his act than any of the traumas he experienced vicariously as a (not very good) therapist. You ask, what are the policy implications? I think the policy implications are obvious: Political correctness may have kept the Army from acting against a man who quite obviously harbored extreme anti-American feelings. I've argued that what the American military needs is more Muslims, not fewer Muslims, in the ranks, for any number of good reasons. But I believe, not based solely on this case, that the military has been overly squeamish about screening Muslims for extremist views. (If only Hasan had been gay, he might have been witch-hunted right out of the Army!)

I also think that a careful study of this case could lead us to learn more about self-radicalization, which is obviously an important phenomenon to study, because if what I believe to be true is in fact true, the Hasan case, along with many others, means that  al-Qaeda as an organization no longer matters; al-Qaeda is now an idea, which of course is more dangerous. My main worry is that we'll suffer other attacks like this one if we keep ourselves from looking squarely at the possibility that Islamist ideology has infiltrated at least some corners of the American Muslim community.

JK: Jeff, I think we're in basic agreement here, especially on the policy implications. I do worry about projecting an individual nut into part of a religious movement (jihadism) that I consider sociopathic to begin with--because that can be further projected, and has been, into a belief that all Muslims are closet sociopaths. I think it's also important to remember that we are actually winning this war: As was made clear in Anbar Province, your average Sunni would much rather live a moderate lifestyle--smoking, watching TV, not having their daughter forced into marriages with terrorists--than live under the control of the extremists. There has been far too much hysteria about the strength and reach of the jihadis. We need, obviously,  to be vigilant--as the military will be now. But if you give the sociopaths too much credit, they achieve their aim: terror.