Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Who Is to Blame When Healer Turns Killer?

People need to know why.

By Janis Whitlock, MPH, Ph.D., and Elizabeth Lloyd-Richardson, Ph.D.

People need to know why. Making sense of life events, even events that seem so senseless as that which occurred at Fort Hood, is hardwired into the human psyche. We saw this clearly immediately following the Columbine shootings when theories about why abounded. Competing early explanations left no one, particularly the killers' parents, free of blame. More considered and thoughtful efforts to understand the particular alchemy between Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold's inner world and out worlds came later and were more provocative: Eric Harris, Dylan Klebold and their families, friends, and schoolmates expressed, with tragic results, contradictions inherent in the values and assumptions of American middle class youth. Missing in the initial punditry about what went wrong at Columbine was full consideration of the fact that both Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were average kids living average lives in families and communities widely assumed to have achieved the middle class dream. They were also young people living in a country home to 44 of the 58 school shootings worldwide since 1996 and were possessed of the famously American appetite for visibility and fame - even if achieved through notoriety. For those who cared enough to look deeply, Columbine and other seemingly random school and community shootings were symptoms of a larger social malady.

In the Fort Hood massacre we see the same pattern - a pattern deeply rooted in the collective American limbic system (the part of the brain associated with the fight or flight response). The American tendency to publically seek out and chronicle the victims, the villain, and the unique and usually individual level "causes" of a villain's shocking behavior are as routine and dependable as a drug addict's search for a fix. Within hours of the event there were hundreds of articles and blogs identifying Major Nidal Malik Hasan's actions as motivated by Islamic jihadist agendas, anti-Americanism, and/or secondary post traumatic stress disorder. Writers immediately speculated about whether Nidal Malik Hasan would be executed and eagerly outlined the causes of his steep slide into the mass murder.

Science teaches us that human beings are immensely resilient and adaptable. It also teaches that there are limits to human plasticity when cognitive and sensory experiences are overwhelmingly negative and chronic. While there is nothing that can exonerate Nidal Malik Hasan's actions, it is worth the effort to try and understand what occurred in the mind of a military psychiatrist with many years experience dealing with trauma, anger, and the myriad psychological challenges presented by war and military life. The severity of his violent behavior in combination with what little is publically and reliably known about his mental state preceding the event suggests that Nidal Malik Hasan was a man experiencing chronic psychological distress, severe and chronic enough to cause a profound mental snap. He would have seen the signs in himself and we know he had already sought out an exit from an environment, internally and externally, he found increasingly intolerable.

Nidal Malik Hasan will stand trial and be punished. What remains to be answered is whether we collectively question why there were no off-ramps for Nidal Malik Hasan before he hit his wall. Although not the first of their kind, Eric and Dylan overtly and publically challenged the popular American assumption that middle-class lifestyles, values, and families protect kids from getting lost in the dark. This event has the potential to open another door for collective self-reflection. Nidal Malik Hasan is a man who lived and tragically expressed the contradictions inherent in the collective American psyche - contradictions brought to him over and over through his contact with a countless number of soldiers asked to use violence to create peace, asked to think of and treat as "other" a people Nidal Malik Hasan knew as "us."

Every day in the United States schools teach children to value diversity, to use methods other than violence to solve problems and achieve their aims, and to ask for what they want respectfully and constructively. Schools and communities invest millions of dollars to teach children how to live with integrity among a diverse set of others. And yet, many adults continue to model an entirely different paradigm altogether - one in which there are enemies and allies, good and evil, those who must be protected and those who must be hated, feared, and destroyed. In the posthumous autopsy of this event I hope that we will find more than Nidal Malik Hasan's derangement, I hope we will find a reflection of ourselves - a reflection that inspires compassion and a willingness to confront the deep collective dissonance Nidal Malik Hasan embodies. I hope we do this before it we create another Nidal Malik Hasan.

Elizabeth Lloyd-Richardson, Ph.D., is an associate professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth and a licensed clinical psychologist who studies adolescent and young-adult health risk behaviors, with a specific focus on issues such as self-harm, obesity, and substance abuse.