Comprehensible

President Obama gave a speech today at Fort Hood. You can read the transcript here.

In his remarks he referred to Nidal Hasan’s murderous rampage as “incomprehensible”. To him it may actually be, which is in itself a harrowing thought. For most of the rest of us, it is anything but.

Those who indeed cannot, or for political reasons will not, comprehend it in terms of the factually obvious have labored mightily to create an exculpatory narrative. Dorothy Rabinowitz, writing in today’s Wall Street Journal, tells us about the reaction of the pop psychologist “Dr. Phil” McGraw:

The quality and thrust of this argument was best captured by the impassioned Dr. Phil, who asked us to consider, “how far out of touch with reality do you have to be to kill your fellow Americans . . . this is not a well act.” And how far out of touch with reality is such a question, one asks in return—not only of Dr. Phil, but of the legions of commentators like him immersed in the labyrinths of motive hunting even as the details of Maj. Hasan’s proclivities became ever clearer and more ominous.

To kill your fellow Americans—as many as possible, unarmed and in the most helpless of circumstances, while shouting “Allahu Akbar” (God is great), requires, of course, only murderous hatred—the sort of mindset that regularly eludes the Dr. Phils of our world as the motive for mass murder of this kind.

As the meditations on Maj. Hasan’s motives rolled on, “fear of deployment” has served as a major theme—one announced as fact in the headline for the New York Times’s front-page story: “Told of War Horror, Gunman Feared Deployment.” The authority for this intelligence? The perpetrator’s cousin. No story could have better suited that newspaper’s ongoing preoccupation with the theme of madness in our fighting men, and the deadly horrors of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, than this story of a victim of war pressures gone berserk. The one fly in the ointment—Maj. Hasan had of course seen no war, and no combat.

Still, with a bit of stretching, adherents of Maj. Hasan-as-war-victim theme found a substitute of sorts—namely the fears allegedly provoked in him by his exposure, as an army psychiatrist, to the stories of men who had been deployed. The thesis then: Maj. Hasan’s mental stress, provoked by the suffering of Americans who had been in combat, caused him to go out and butcher as many of these soldiers as he could. Let’s try putting that one before a jury.

You can find Ms. Rabinowitz’s essay here.

David Brooks, in today’s Times, sounded a similar theme. The transparently manipulative rush by the news media and our elected officials to pre-empt any ill-will toward Islam was a patronizing and infantilizing tactic, he writes, and beneath the nation’s dignity:

When Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan did that in Fort Hood, Tex., last week, many Americans had an understandable and, in some ways, admirable reaction. They didn’t want the horror to become a pretext for anti-Muslim bigotry.

So immediately the coverage took on a certain cast. The possibility of Islamic extremism was immediately played down. This was an isolated personal breakdown, not an ideological assault, many people emphasized.

Major Hasan was portrayed as a disturbed individual who was under a lot of stress. We learned about pre-traumatic stress syndrome, and secondary stress disorder, which one gets from hearing about other people’s stress. We heard the theory (unlikely in retrospect) that Hasan was so traumatized by the thought of going into a combat zone that he decided to take a gun and create one of his own.

A shroud of political correctness settled over the conversation. Hasan was portrayed as a victim of society, a poor soul who was pushed over the edge by prejudice and unhappiness.

There was a national rush to therapy. Hasan was a loner who had trouble finding a wife and socializing with his neighbors.

This response was understandable. It’s important to tamp down vengeful hatreds in moments of passion. But it was also patronizing. Public commentators assumed the air of kindergarten teachers who had to protect their children from thinking certain impermissible and intolerant thoughts. If public commentary wasn’t carefully policed, the assumption seemed to be, then the great mass of unwashed yahoos in Middle America would go off on a racist rampage.

Worse, it absolved Hasan — before the real evidence was in — of his responsibility. He didn’t have the choice to be lonely or unhappy. But he did have a choice over what story to build out of those circumstances. And evidence is now mounting to suggest he chose the extremist War on Islam narrative that so often leads to murderous results.

The conversation in the first few days after the massacre was well intentioned, but it suggested a willful flight from reality. It ignored the fact that the war narrative of the struggle against Islam is the central feature of American foreign policy. It ignored the fact that this narrative can be embraced by a self-radicalizing individual in the U.S. as much as by groups in Tehran, Gaza or Kandahar.

It denied, before the evidence was in, the possibility of evil. It sought to reduce a heinous act to social maladjustment. It wasn’t the reaction of a morally or politically serious nation.

Quite so. I was surprised by Mr. Brooks’s frankness in this passage: “It ignored the fact that the war narrative of the struggle against Islam is the central feature of American foreign policy.”

Perhaps the mood is beginning to shift in the wake of this incident, as I imagined it might. Not the struggle against “terror”, note, nor the struggle against al-Qaeda: the struggle against Islam. And in the Times, no less. There will be mail.

Meanwhile, in tonight’s news we learn that the former Nation of Islam member John Muhammad, who killed at least 10 people in sniper attacks seven years ago, has been executed.

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2 Comments

  1. howsurprising says

    Well good thing you’re stirring up ill-will against Islam, heh?

    As for your remark on Obama’s comment. Give him some slack. A memorial is not a thesis statement.

    Posted November 12, 2009 at 4:04 pm | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Yeah, you’re right: better just to lie back and think of England.

    As for Mr. Obama, he gets plenty of slack already. There was no need to refer to this as “incomprehensible”; that was completely gratuitous. He could have made a lovely memorial address without it.

    Posted November 12, 2009 at 4:12 pm | Permalink