Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

07 November 2009

Lesson from Fort Hood

    “He was a loner.”—Virginia Tech spokesman Larry Hinckler, speaking of 23-year-old mass murderer Cho Seung-Hui, April 17, 2007.

We know so little about Major Nidal Malik Hasan, who killed thirteen and wounded 38 at Fort Hood Thursday. Our media that never sleep have obsessed on his story for over forty hours and found next to nothing.

Hasan was a military man. But nothing in military or civilian law keeps anyone from interviewing people who knew him personally and well. Apparently our media have found no one. No one even knows yet whether he is responsible for strange Web postings that seemed to sympathize with terrorists. No one can say. That fact in itself speaks volumes.

Hasan is a psychiatrist. For years he lived alone in a basement like a friendless student. His job was to ease the pain of soldiers under stress of repeated deployments in two wars, both of which are approaching the longest in our history. Yet who knew of his own pain? Who cared?

It’s easy to imagine how his isolation increased. His job and training were to hear his patients out. He had to listen to them caringly and non-judgmentally. He had to assuage their deepest fears, which military machismo forbade them from airing to others.

Hasan is an American, born and bred. He has an Arabic name but no accent or foreign mannerisms. No doubt his patients, forgetting his foreign name on the security of his couch, said many things about Arabs and Muslims that Hasan would rather not have heard. Professional discipline required him to nod and respond sympathetically.

Who shared Hasan’s pain? Who even knew? Apparently, no one. The psychiatrist was going quietly crazy and no one even suspected.

Two millennia ago, the ancient Romans asked a relevant question: “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes”—“who will guard the guardians?” Hasan’s job was to watch and care for others, but who was watching or caring for him?

The answer, of course, is no one. In that respect he was as quintessentially American as Cho Seung-Hui and Timothy McVeigh.

That is the lesson of Fort Hood. In the biggest military base in the world, a highly educated man—a doctor!—got lost without a trace and therefore lost his soul. Amidst all the structure, organization, routine and ceremony of military life, a cog quietly broke and fell off the gears, and no one noticed.

Now that Hasan is in a coma from which he may never awake, the only record of his loneliness and personal disintegration may be those Web postings, if in fact they are his. How odd that electronics should preserve forever a history of mental decay of a man to whom no one reached out!

In the coming weeks, we will hear many “lessons” from Fort Hood. Some will be obvious, like the need for better control of weapons—especially personal weapons—on military bases. Some will be more subtle and profound, like the need to hew to our ideals of equality. Our national credo is that “all Men are created equal,” and our President personifies it. We cannot and will not start Muslim- or Arab-bashing now, especially not when winning our two wars requires maintaining the open arms that our Statue of Liberty symbolizes.

Some may wonder why our society is awash in weapons. But our Supreme Court approves. And we so love our weapons that election of an unusual President with a reputation for gun control caused a vast hoarding of ammunition. It will be decades, if ever, before a great thinker might help us reconsider our love affair with personal instruments of death and destruction.

In the meantime, we should all think about something much more fundamental. What the NRA says is sadly true. Weapons don’t kill. People do. And we now have quite enough examples to know when. They kill when extreme isolation dehumanizes them, when they have no friends.

Recently my wife and I have become friendly with immigrants from a foreign culture. They have extended families spread around the globe. When they get together, they are noisy, chaotic, and caring. Their embrace is all-encompassing. Even here in America, far from they bulk of their families, these immigrants stick together. They never lack a sympathetic ear, a loving glance, a gentle touch, or help to run an errand or watch a sick child. They are never alone. In that noisy but loving cocoon, it is impossible to imagine any of them doing what Hasan did. Ever.

But Hasan isn’t an immigrant. Like so many of us, he is an American of foreign descent. He had no noisy extended family. He had no network of close friends. Apparently, he had no one at all to sit with him, lie with him, smile at him, touch his arm, drink with him, or laugh with him. All he had was Facebook, Twitter and the ever-present Web. So one day he cracked and slaughtered others, as if they were not fellow sentient beings but erasable bits and bytes.

In a vastly different age, when no one lived alone, John Donne wrote, “No man is an island.”

Today that is not so. In the richest, most technologically advanced society on earth, we have made it possible for human islands to exist. In some ways we have encouraged them. We offer food, clothing, shelter, and information—riches beyond anything John Donne could have imagined. We even offer electronic illusions of friendship (Facebook) and spontaneity (Twitter).

All these things we offer without real human contact. We provide no extended family to those who need it most. And so we must add a modern codicil to Donne’s great legacy: “a man who is an island can be dangerous.”

Epilogue: A Social Rx

If you want a general prescription for what ails American society, here’s mine. At least once a month, every group in America, from the White House down to every local service station, throws a party.

Five simple rules govern these parties:

1. Everyone in the group is invited, and everyone comes. Attendance is mandatory. (For the House and the Senate, that includes both parties and independents.)

2. Everyone who is not a wallflower engages those who are. Socializing is mandatory, and wallflowers get special attention.

3. Everyone without a dangerous medical condition gets at least mildly intoxicated. Mild inebriation is mandatory. People outside the group provide designated drivers.

4. All electronic devices and other weapons get locked away for the duration.

5. There are no exceptions and no excuses to rules 1 through 4.

After a year of human socializing, we would have change we all can believe in. Call this a fanstasy if you like. But don’t knock it ‘til you’ve tried it. Facebook is no substitute for face time.


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  • At Tue Jun 08, 05:39:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Your proposal seems sound, except that your rule 3 would de facto outlaw Islam (and any other religion that forbids intoxication - Seventh Day Adventist Church?)

    Then again, I'm not aware of any non-political mass murders by Muslims -- perhaps that's down to the fact that Muslim cultures place a very strong emphasis on the extended family...

  • At Fri Jun 11, 12:06:00 PM EDT, Blogger jay said…

    Two good points, and thank you for them.

    I thought about the first one when I wrote the piece. At that time, I aw socialization, in all its nuances, as more important than absolute rules against intoxication.

    But of course any rule that excludes an entire religious group, especially Muslims, would only increase their alienation. That’s the paradox of rules against head scarves and the like.

    Now I think a better answer is non-chemical ways of getting slightly inebriated. Good food, good music, and good company are some. Karaoke is another; sake helps it along, but it works without alcohol almost as well.

    So relax Rule 3 for people with religious or other scruples; just keep the good cheer and comradeship.

    Your second point, I think, deserves more thought. I, too, am unable to recall anything like the random murders that now occur regularly in the US and seem to be starting in Britain as well, despite its strict gun control. The increasingly common phenomenon of random and pointless terror is a consequence of Western society’s utter failure to socialize a small fraction of its people, leading to their extreme isolation and alienation.

    I don't agree, however, that religion is responsible for the apparent absence of that kind of terrorism in Islamic nations. Probably it derives from close extended families and the “guiding hand” of elders as youth comes of age.

    While family care and nurturing are preferable, other institutions can and do provide acceptable substitutes when families fail. One such institution is our military, which has a superb record of taking troubled youth and molding them into admirable citizens.

    Some might disparage this effort as "social engineering," but it works. Perhaps we need more such institutions in our increasingly isolating and alienating electronic world.

    But what we really need is fewer economic pressures on our families, so they can better nurture and care for their kids. That will require a major transformation of our society, especially as poor and middle-class families continue to suffer and strive. In the meantime, schools and the military can help by giving troubled youth (and others!) a “home away from home” and integrating them fully into a supportive group.


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