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Posted by on Nov 9, 2009 in Media, Neuropsychiatry

Fort Hood Shootings: An Attempt to Separate Terrorism From Psychopathology

Fort Hood Shootings: An Attempt to Separate Terrorism From Psychopathology


I had the fortune (I won’t say it was misfortune) of sitting next to a Chicago-based shock jock (possibly former shock jock) at the National Radio Hall of Fame induction ceremony on Saturday. In what I can only assume was his on-air “on” mode,* the deejay announced that the Fort Hood shootings were an act of terrorism and that we (assuming “we” meant the FBI, not the ceremony attendees) should interrogate every Muslim in the US military as a consequence.

Perhaps the guy’s comments were merely a knee-jerk way to get the table talking (or, in a different context, the phone lines blinking). But there was no indication that he didn’t believe what he saidwhich is concerning. It is, moreover, troubling that the man could spout off these unmeasured words to a large radio audience, words that could reasonably be expected to foment religious- or ethnic-based hate. (I am aware, at least in the abstract, that radio is a bastion for freewheeling types, especially freewheeling conservatives; but this kind of thoughtlessness is more acutely felt when it’s sitting next to you. Changing the station wasn’t an option.)

Most of us know that, even if interrogation of every one of the thousands of Muslims in the US military were a smart use of resources in the investigation of the Fort Hood shootings (and it isn’t), it cannot be done. The act, providing that you could even determine who’s Muslim and who’s not, would be blatantly discriminatory. The objection is obvious to anyone who’s watched a “Law & Order” episodeor any legal TV show, for that matter.

The potentially stickier question is whether the Fort Hood shootings were an act of terrorism. The answer to this question depends on the definition of terrorism, which is in a perpetual state of flux. Defining terrorism is like defining pornography, in that visceral input seems necessary.

But words of law must, nevertheless, try to be explicit. In the US Federal code, terrorism (whether international or domestic) comprises the following: 

  1. Violent acts or acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States.
  2. Acts that are intended (as in, appear to be intended) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population or to influence government policy or conduct.

In the case of the Fort Hood shootings, the definition of terrorism hinges on the second component and particularly on knowing, to the extent it is ever possible, the intent of the suspect, Major Nidal Malik Hasan. Did Hasan intend to intimidate or coerce a civilian population? Given the location of the shootings, it certainly doesn’t appear soat least not directly. If anything, Hasan was attempting to influence a military population, if he was attempting to influence anyone at all. The issue of whether Hasan was attempting to influence government policy or conduct seems even more abstruse. The thoughts of the irrational are, by definition, difficult to fathom. Perhaps, in his unbalanced way, Hasan was simply trying to eliminate as many military personnel as possiblepersonnel that could be deployed to Afghanistan or Iraq.

A profile of Hasan suggests a deeply troubled psychiatrist, who buried himself in his Islamic faith after the deaths of his parents in 1998 and 2001. Also a highly sensitive individual, Hasan may have been particularly vulnerable to any anti-Muslim sentiment or harrassment that he encountered in the US military. An anti-Muslim environment, if it existed, may have pushed Hasan to Islamic extremes. It is reported that Hasan was unable to reconcile his growing fundamentalism with his military duties. Moreover he falsely believed that he could not escape his military service. The personal bind could have led to Thursday’s desperation. From the profile, we can reasonably conclude that Islamic fundamentalism informed Hasan’s behavior; but an act of violence by an Islamic fundamentalist is not necessarily terrorism. At least I don’t think so.

An unwritten component in the definition of terrorism rests on the issue of conspiracy. Specifically was Hasan inflenced by another to shoot up the Fort Hood processing center?** Investigation to date suggests that Hasan’s act was not conspiratorial in naturemeaning: he acted alone. Despite the probability that Hasan was influenced by Islamic extremism, there is no evidence (at least to date) that he was urged or supported by another individual to harm anyone generally or enlisted men and women specifically. In this way, Hasan, a native American, appears similar to our growing list of lone mass murderers: from Charles Whitman to Seung-Hui Cho.***  

* I hope, for the sake of his wife, he’s got an off mode.

** It is assumed that terrorists want to clarify that their acts are terrorism. Otherwise what’s the point?

*** Who coincidentally, like Hasan, attended Virginia Tech.

bmartin (1127 Posts)

A native East Tennessean, Barbara Martin is a formerly practicing, board-certified neurologist who received her BS (psychology, summa cum laude) and MD from Duke University before completing her postgraduate training (internship, residency, fellowship) at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. She has worked in academia, private practice, medical publishing, drug market research, and continuing medical education (CME). For the last 3 years, she has worked in a freelance capacity as a medical writer, analyst, and consultant. Follow Dr. Barbara Martin on and Twitter.