Seeking to understand the unimaginable

Sunday, November 15, 2009

An Army psychiatrist, trained to treat men and women dealing with combat stress, allegedly shoots and kills a dozen people and wounds 30 others. Because of the deadline set for me by the Missourian, this column was written five days ago. Which is to say, by the time you read this, we may well know something about the motivation behind Dr. Nidal Malik Hasan's actions -- information not available when I hit "send" on my computer.

Why did he do it? (Imagine me shrugging my shoulders at this point.) The longer I live, the less certain I am about why people say and do certain things. It helps to be prepared for most anything. Naturally, no one would write a script that played out as the massacre at Fort Hood, Texas, has. In my opinion, we can no longer take any behavior for granted. Give me a couple of paragraphs to explain why.

For me, Malcolm Gladwell's 2000 book, "The Tipping Point," is helpful. He did not write his monograph about acts of violence, but his logic applies nonetheless. Gladwell says there comes a moment when you reach a "threshold" in your thinking. To say it differently, a level is reached when you literally change your mind about something of which you previously were certain.

For me, as I think of the events of Nov. 5 at one of the largest military installations in the world, that tipping point has a name: Susan Smith. When she drowned her two sons in a South Carolina lake in 1994, I was forced to abandon the following conviction: All mothers, all of the time, can be counted on to protect their children. Susan Smith destroyed that cherished notion. If a mother's sheltering love can go off the table even a handful of times, then any behavioral aberration is possible. The late Pulitzer Prize-winning author Willa Cather was right -- "the heart of another is a dark forest."

It would help all of us if people could simply wear their hurts like placards on their blouses, shirts and sweaters. If we saw, for example, someone coming wearing a sign saying, "Don't provoke me, I just had a terrible fight at home," we would be careful. As it is, we have no such early warning; therefore, we must be discerning. We have to read people. We should avoid provocation sometimes and confront at other times. The latter course, if taken before Nov. 5 at Fort Hood, might have saved lives. But how can you know what to do and when?

Much has been written about Dr. Hasan being an adherent of Islam. Yes, it appears he attended a mosque that had been frequented by two Sept. 11 hijackers. Yes, it seems he was cautioned against open proselytizing of his Islamic faith. Yes, an eyewitness reports Hasan shouted the greeting "Allahu akbar" (God is great) -- which is used among Muslim populations.

Any backlash against American Muslims would be a betrayal of who we are. Americans don't generalize particularity. We don't blame a nation or a faith for the monstrous evil committed by one person. We understand this was the act of a deranged individual, not the organized jihad by a group of persons. If events prove me wrong, I will use this space to apologize. My prayer is that the chaplains at Fort Hood are regularly using the Scriptures to help victims and families deal with the inexplicable. The prayer of St. Francis of Assisi comes to mind. The 13th-century mystic's words are immensely hard to follow -- but we must try: "Where there is hatred, let me sow love. Where is injury, pardon."

Jeff Long is pastor of Centenary United Methodist Church in Cape Girardeau. Married with two daughters, he is of Scots and Swedish descent, loves movies and is a lifelong fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

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