What Made Him Do It?

Yesterday, United States Army Major Nidal Malik Hasan shot and killed 12 people and wounded 31 others at the Fort Hood Army base. He survived four shots and is now hospitalized.

Wild speculation began immediately. Fueling speculation are reports that Maj. Hasan is a Muslim and had made various statements reflecting opposition to U.S. military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan. One interviewee even claimed that the major had said that Muslims should not be fighting Muslims.

Maj. Hasan is an Army psychiatrist who was about to be deployed to Afghanistan. There are reports that he was agitated about this.

The investigation into this horrific crime will be complicated. But today, one question has been pressed repeatedly in various media interviews and reports: “What caused Maj. Hasan to do this?”

The question is ludicrous. It presumes that his action was “caused,” as if it was some set of circumstances that ineluctably made him do it. But why think that?

Notice, I’m not asking, What makes anyone think that? That would be to commit the same mistake. I’m asking what reasons anyone would have for thinking that. Here are two possibilities.

First possibility. One might assume that nothing this horrific could be pre-meditated and morally culpable, but must be due to some psychological disorder or malfunction. “Nobody in his right mind would do such a thing.” That is, anyone who would do such a thing must be “out of his mind.” Such a one is more to be pitied than blamed. The tragedy extends not only to the victims and their families, but to the shooter himself who could not help himself, who was in some way driven to this behavior.

Second possibility. One might be concerned that Hasan’s action could have been motivated by a Jihadist ideology, and that this is socially and politically awkward. If Hasan was acting in full possession of his mental faculties, in premeditated fashion, under the inspiration of a Jihadist ideology, that spells real trouble on two levels.

First, it means that greater vigilance is needed at home to ensure that we have a trustworthy fighting force waging war with Jihadism overseas. Those who volunteer for service need to know that the men and women serving alongside them are on the same side. Americans need confidence that every means of terrorist insurgency in the United States is realistically assessed.

Second, any hint that terrorist strategists have infiltrated our military infrastructure could have serious social repercussions. I’ll leave it to readers to contemplate what those repercussions may be. But one way to begin would be to ask, what am I to think and how am I to go about my business, if even our home military bases are this vulnerable?

Looking for the “causes” of the man’s behavior is ridiculous. The most intelligent assumption, at the outset of investigation into this event, is that he made a calculated decision to perpetrate this crime. His motive needs to be investigated. Motive refers, not to causes, but to reasons. So, what did Hasan believe? What ideas and beliefs could he have had, consistent with all evidence, that could make sense to him of taking this kind of action?

The alternative is to suppose that no one acts with such horrific consequences in a morally accountable way. If that’s true, then what are we doing in Iraq and Afghanistan? Why, for that matter, is anyone ever locked up for an egregious crime? Everything is to be causally explained.

Let’s suppose that we could somehow persuade ourselves that human action is causally determined and that we must be sympathetic with agents who do such horrible things. We might still wish to contain the scope of their action and influence, to prevent opportunities for them to engage in such behavior—if only to spare the lives of innocents. On the assumption that behavior is caused, prevention would depend upon somehow mitigating the causes. Fine. But why shouldn’t ideology then be regarded as causal in its effect? Embracing a pernicious ideology may itself, on the assumption, be the effect of various psycho and social causes. If all commitment to Jihadist ideology is causally induced, which in turn leads causally to terrorist acts, then we still have an interest in isolating the ideological component in a person’s behavior, however “causal” the role of ideology may be. And once isolating that component, we should develop means to screen for its presence among individuals who have opportunity to act perniciously under its inducement.

Whatever role ideology did or did not actually play in Maj. Hasan’s action, I believe that we have to presume that his action is morally reprehensible and not just psychically tragic. And if ideology was a “factor,” then even a causal account of Hasan’s behavior must face that fact.

On September 11, 2001, Americans were stunned by the success of terrorist plotting that was years in the making and staging. On November 5, 2009, Americans were stunned by news of a massacre at Ford Hood. Are the events connected? At this point, who can say? But surely it is not paranoia to consider the possibility. Many of our leaders seem to be in denial. They carry on business as if terrorist reprisals are a thing of the past, or at worst effectively restricted to remote locations.

We need to understand the nature and power of ideology. Terrorists, for example, are pragmatists. They seek realistic means of achieving their goals. We do not accept their ideology; thus, we fail to understand their actions. We don’t understand their objectives; we simply can’t relate to them. And so we make all kinds of mistakes in judgment about their motives and methods. As pragmatists, however, Jihadists are creative and patient. Are they beyond  exploiting the freedoms of all Americans to live in relative obscurity, infiltrate whatever strategic centers of activity exist in our land, and pull the trigger at that moment when it best serves their purposes? Don’t kid yourself.

What made Maj. Hasan pull the trigger yesterday? That’s the wrong question. Better to ask: How could this have happened? There is an answer to this question. We may not like what we find out. But if all we consider is what makes a terrorist do what he does, we may not see the next one in our midst. I don’t know if Maj. Hasan is a Jihadist. I do believe he’s morally responsible for his action. And I fear the consequences if we refuse to investigate the possibility that Hasan, whether acting alone or not, was acting on behalf of an ideology.

About Doug Geivett
University Professor; PhD in philosophy; author; conference speaker. Hobbies include motorcycling, travel, kayaking, sailing.

7 Responses to What Made Him Do It?

  1. Bill Gilbert says:

    What is obvious to me is there are millions of people in this world who would bury us if they could. Muslims are a large part of that group. In the end God will judge every person. I am very comfortable in my beliefs. May God bless one and all.


  2. Doug Geivett says:

    Agreed, Mike. Other ideologies, however idiosyncratic, could be equally subversive. It continues to be debated whether Jihadism is intrinsic to Islam. But even those who suppose that it is should know there are countless Muslims who don’t believe it, and don’t act it out. This is empirically demonstrated, and should be obvious.


  3. Mike Austin says:

    It’s not Muslims, but rather those who embrace a certain ideology connected with Islam. Bill’s statement is too broad, and inaccurate. People who would choose to turn on their military brothers and sisters in the name of ideology or for any other reason don’t belong in the military.


  4. Doug Geivett says:


    Do you doubt that there are brave and honorable men and women serving in the United States military who also are Muslims?



  5. Bill Gilbert says:

    We are setting our selfs up for these attacks under the name of political correctness. Muslims do not belong in goverment or the military. GOD blessyou.


  6. Doug Geivett says:

    Hi Phil,

    The evidence is mounting that Hasan was acting from an ideology. If that’s true, we have reason to be concerned that the enemy is more difficult to detect than many think, especially under the influence of political correctness.

    I guess it’s possible that Hasan acted from an ideological motive without actually being trained by Jihadists and shrewdly inserted into his military position for terrorist purposes as part of a larger conspiracy. That possibility and the alternative both constitute grounds for new forms of vigilance.

    Thanks for joining the discussion.



  7. Phil Watson says:

    Great thoughts. I could not agree more. I do believe that understanding the right motivations can help bring an understanding to this pernicious enemy and what to do about them. Ideas can kill.


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