I Will Never Speak A Word

October 18, 2013
Harvey Roy Greenberg, MD

One is reminded of an ancient tale of 10 blind men sent by a king to describe an elephant. Whichever piece of the beast each blind man touched, so ran his faulty description. At one time or another the FBI, Army, and Hasan’s superiors each touched a piece of Nidal Hasan. Tragically, no one was able to assemble the entire frightful picture, and head him off at the pass.

At the end of Othello, a Venetian nobleman angrily
demands that Iago disclose the reasons for his wicked deeds. His reply:
 
Demand me nothing
What you know, you know:
From this time forth I never will speak word.
 
Iago’s stubborn silence came to mind as I sifted the mountain of contradictory evidence that has accumulated around the enigmatic figure of former Major and military psychiatrist, Nidal Malik Hasan.

Brute facts: on November 15, 2009, at Fort Hood’s Soldier Readiness Processing Center, Hasan allegedly shouted Allahu Akhbar!! [God is Great!], then opened fire with recently and easily-purchased guns. He slaughtered 18 people, wounded 30 more, before he himself was gunned down.

Hassan's outcry comprises virtually the only words he has uttered in public since the shootings. His guilty plea at arraignment was quickly denied because military law doesn’t allow it in cases that might warrant a death penalty. 

At trial, Hasan, now paraplegic, fired his attorneys; represented himself; made no opening or closing statement; asked only a few prosecution witnesses to identify him as the perpetrator. A military tribunal quickly found him guilty and called for his execution. At this writing, he is imprisoned, fate uncertain-and continues to speak not a word publically. His silence, like Iago’s, thus comprises a screen upon which one can project any theory that seems to fit. The most plausible although unproven to date is that Hasan sought and still seeks-a Jihadist’s homicidal martyrdom. 

Like nature, the media abhors a vacuum. The tube and internet hums with portentous pronunciamentos of the commentating horde who predictably descended upon the scene. A plethora of those who knew or claimed to have known Hasan have been endlessly interviewed in the press and on TV.

Experts from a dizzying array of disciplines are still parsing Hasan’s life for clues as to what motivated him. A red thread of uncertainty or downright unreliablity runs through much of this reportage. Hard facts about Hasan often turn out to be unverified opinions, second and third-hand hearsay especially revelations about the notional dark side of what previously seemed an orderly, productive life. (An offender’s dark side is especially dear to the hearts of true crime aficionados.) 

Hasan’s history has been plumbed for evidence of psychiatric disorder. It’s a particularly juicy project for crime buffs, given that he is a psychiatrist. He received training at the Armed Services excellent medical school, then completed a 6-year psychiatric residence at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Depending on who has sussed out his medical career, he is depicted as a dedicated, competent physician, or as sub-par and mediocre.

Hasan holds a masters degree in traumatic stress studies. He investigated the vicissitudes of American Muslim soldiers: was particularly concerned about the maintenance of their mental health later on in his work, their spiritual well being as well in the context of their being tasked to fight co-religionists. Some listeners to a lecture he gave on these issues supposedly found it sensitive and helpful; others thought it odiously subversive. 

Hasan has been described by family and acquaintances as quiet, peaceful, and thoroughly devoted to his profession. That very quietness is elsewhere deemed a mask for malignant paranoia, notably about the persecution of Arabs at home and abroad. (Media suits often absurdly construe a quiet demeanor as a predictor of future violence, terrorist-inspired or otherwise. )

What does seem reasonably clear is that Hasan was raised in an unexceptional Muslim-American family with moderate beliefs, was proud of his career, then became radicalized at some point over 1 or 2 years preceding the Fort Hood catastrophe. The reasons put forward for his extremist turn are many inter alia: his car may have been broken into by some bigoted fellow soldier. . .  he had recently received orders for duty in Afghanistan . . .  so forth. But at base his motives still remain obscure.

Hasan did send a swarm of emails to Anwar al-Awlaki, an Imam who previously counselled him at a mosque he attended in Silver Springs for many years. Al-Awlaki’s Islamic beliefs were supposedly moderate at that time, but he emigrated to the Arab world and became a well known Al-Qaeda spokesman. (He was killed in a drone attack last year). Speaking from Yemen after the Fort Hood massacre, al-Awlaki claimed he never incited Hasan to violence, and insisted the two only discussed spiritual issues. He seemed genuinely annoyed at Hasan’s deluge of cyberspace questions.

I believe al-Awlaki spoke the truth. However repugnant their actions, Al-Qaeda-type outfits are usually well organized and tightly run by competent leadership. Their existence depends on intricate webs of secrecy. I think it is unlikely that such groups would welcome Hasan in their midst, because they would probably have perceived him a loose cannon, and a possible security risk.

It turns out that the FBI had been vetting Hassan’s correspondence with al-Awlaki and his visits to Jihadist websites for at least 6 months preceding the Fort Hood attack. The Bureau eventually concluded that the al-Awlaki emails and other radical internet activity were essentially related to Hasan’s sanctioned research, and ceased surveillance. But Hasan may have evolved into what terrorist experts have called the home-grown Jihadist-radicalized in private through the internet alone.

In any event, the blame game flourishes, facilitated by that most accurate scientific instrument-the retrospectoscope. Insinuations from various quarters abound that Hasan was a human time bomb who should have been properly identified early on, then hospitalized, incarcerated, or even terminated with extreme prejudice (the spook s repellant euphemism for rank assassination).

Those taken to task for not taking Hasan off the board include medical school and residency supervisors; sundry military authorities; the FBI; the CIA; Homeland Security, so forth. 

Blame gamers appear unaware or not to care that at no time did Hasan threaten harm to any individual or group. Also, retroscopic demands for more rigorous clinical screening ignores the fact that in the wrong hands that such might pose a serious threat to basic constitutional rights.  Particularly alarming was a suggestion that soldiers who refuse help for dangerous psychopathology should be situated in some vague fashion within the criminal justice system. Associates, friends, and relatives have even been advised to rat out suspicious recalcitrants for the country’s good. Such dubious patriotic pantopticonning has ever been an ominous signature of totalitarian regimes.

I certainly don’t fault improving clinical assessment and treatment of stressed-out soldiers, especially for troops about to be shipped to combat zones. However an individual like Hasan (in so far as we know about him) might well reject help on one pretext or another including constitutional grounds. Also, it has been my experience that emotionally troubled doctors are often granted far more leeway by their institutions and colleagues to delay psychiatric care, or to avoid it altogether.

It is enormously problematic to separate psychopathology from political ideology and religious belief in ascertaining what might lead a vulnerable but previously non-violent individual to explode into mass homicide. We cannot not know the actual truth about Hasan’s mental state, nor if there was a sinister relationship (if it indeed exists) between his psychological condition and his dire deeds, as long as he maintains his Iago-like silence. One doubts that this will be broken soon, if ever.

I rate the chances of capturing other Hasans before the fact slim, no matter how sophisticated the methodology for monitoring them. I fear that both their possible schizoid disposition as well as an eerie ability to don a mask of sanity will continue to keep most well beneath the radar until they erupt into mayhem.

Nevertheless, one would think that living in a relatively closed society like the Army would not have allowed Hasan to elude detection. But a perfect storm of suspicion without action in many quarters appears to have kept him in the shadows-until he drew his guns.

One is reminded of an ancient tale of 10 blind men sent by a king to describe an elephant. Whichever piece of the beast each blind man touched, so ran his faulty description. At one time or another the FBI, Army, and Hasan’s superiors* each touched a piece of Hasan. Tragically, no one was able to assemble the entire frightful picture, and head him off at the pass.


*An unofficial committee of Walter Reed psychiatric leaders was set up to monitor Hasan’s behavior several months before the shootings. Their impressions have yet to be disclosed.