Forgiving Major Hasan

One photograph of Major Nidal Malik Hasan, the Fort Hood shooter, has been most frequently posted online. When I look at that picture, I don’t see the soulless eyes that are often visible in a picture of a mass murderer. On the contrary, looking at his picture, it is easy to believe the contentions of his relatives that he was once a kind, caring, and decent man. Obviously, something went terribly wrong. Yet, portraying Hasan as either an Islamic terrorist blinded by hatred or a man who snapped because he was reluctant to be deployed to Afghanistan does not ring true to me.

Major Hasan has a medical degree as well as a master’s degree in public health. Perhaps because I am an educator, the recollections of Lt. Col. Val Finnell, Hasan’s classmate in the public health program, caught my interest. Finnell “recalled one time when his classmates were giving presentations in an environmental health class on topics like soil and water contamination and the effects of mold. When it was Hasan’s turn, he said, he got up in front of the class and began to speak about his chosen topic, ‘Is the War on Terror a war on Islam?’”

Despite objections from the class, the professor allowed the presentation to continue. Being non-responsive to assignments became a pattern with Hasan. As a senior-year psychiatric resident at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Hasan was “supposed to make a presentation on a medical topic of his choosing as a culminating exercise of the residency program.” Instead according to the Washington Post “he stood before his supervisors and about 25 other mental health staff members and lectured on Islam, suicide bombers and threats the military could encounter from Muslims conflicted about fighting in the Muslim countries.” I have read Hasan’s presentation which is available here. There’s nothing in the presentation that a reasonable person could conclude was a medical topic. In other words, he was again completely nonresponsive to the assignment he was given.

Every few semesters, I encounter a graduate student who submits work that is completely nonresponsive to an assignment. I contact the student and tell him that he has received an F on the assignment, but I invite a resubmission. As a consequence of my intervention, the outcome of this process is often (but not always) a significant learning experience for the student. Sometimes students are nonresponsive to assignments because their schedules are out of balance. Other times, they are simply not serious students. In the end, some students are relieved to have been confronted because it gives them an opening to make new choices.

Dr. Hasan’s professors and medical supervisors clearly dropped the ball. They refused to fulfill their professional obligations; instead, they passed Hasan through. Did they drop the ball because of political correctness or were they simply cowardly, inept, and/or lazy?  Of course, we don’t know; but because they didn’t carry out their professional obligations and hold Dr. Hasan to the same standards they were presumably holding others to, Dr. Hassan was taught very bad lessons. He was taught he was different, that he was a mere object, and that he was less than his classmates.  We can never know how the outcome would have differed; but clearly, opportunities for intervention were missed in Major Hasan’s career.

In his book Beyond Conflict, psychiatrist Dr. Peter Breggin outlines the attributes of the perpetrator as someone who abuses, coerces, or uses violence against others. Perpetrators, among other things, “deny or minimize the damage they are doing to others;” “blame the victim;” “rationalize the harm they are doing;” and “dehumanize their victims.” I can only imagine the rationalizations Hasan’s professors went through as they passed his shoddy work. Of course, I’m not blaming Hasan’s professors for his murderous rampage. I am merely pointing out that it is unlikely Hasan would have been in the position he was in if he had been held accountable in earlier stages of his career.

Through his numerous other books, Dr. Breggin has also exposed the dangers of widely prescribed mood altering psychiatric drugs. In Medication Madness, Breggin tells numerous true stories of the sometimes horrific side effects of psychotropic drugs. One such story is about Harry.

Harry, normally gentle and considerate, began to take Paxil for depression. He became nervously agitated and, eventually, suicidal. He tried to end his life by stealing a gun from a policeman; and in the process, Harry ran over the policeman with a car. Harry related to Breggin that during his assault, he was not thinking about the harm he was inflicting on anyone. As the effects of Paxil wore off, Harry was genuinely horrified over what he had done.

Dr. Breggin calls the effects of these drugs medication spellbinding. One characteristic of spellbinding medications that Breggin identifies is that the patient has no idea he has a deteriorating mental condition. Ultimately, compulsions and destructive behavior take over the patient’s life. The problem, again, is that the harmful effects of the drug are masked. The medicated patient has become insane and doesn’t know it. How frightening!

Given Hasan’s difficulties in his professional studies and his conflict over his religious and military duties, it would be instructive to ask whether Maj. Hasan was on psychotropic drugs? We do know that Dr. Hasan, as a psychiatrist, was trained to believe that human emotions, such as depression and anxiety, reflect biochemical imbalances in the brain that can be treated with psychotropic drugs.  A 2007 study in the journal Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics revealed that almost 16% of psychiatrists self-medicated for depression. I would expect that any commission that investigates Hasan’s rampage will ignore the issue of drugs. The pharmaceutical lobby is simply too powerful.

Neither drugs, nor any past incidents in Hasan’s life, absolve him of any responsibility. But pointing out these things begins to humanize Hasan as more than a soulless monster; and in so doing, we can learn. We can learn that choices motivated by political correctness can be destructive. We can courageously investigate whether Hasan’s mind was altered by drugs. And we can forgive Dr. Hasan.

The word forgiveness is a loaded one. For some, the word brings up fears that forgiveness means we won’t take appropriate action, that we’ll excuse Hasan’s actions, or that we won’t punish him. Forgiveness means none of the above. We forgive Dr. Hasan for our own sake and for the sake of the world we live in.

Author Joe Bailey wrote in Slowing Down to the Speed of Love, “Forgiveness is not merely saying the words I forgive you, it is a change in our level of understanding and feeling. It is a release of all anger and guilt. Forgiveness sees past the illusion that we are totally separate beings, or that one of us is better than another, to the truth that we are all one.”

Can we really be one with a murderer, someone that is labeled by society as a monster? Although we will never be certain of why Hasan choose to be a murderer, we know one thing for sure: In the hours before and during his rampage, Hasan was overcome by murderous thoughts. If we can’t forgive him, how can we forgive our own toxic thoughts? True, few of us ruminate over murderous thoughts; but most of us hold grievances. We get angry and vindictive; sometimes we entertain these angry thoughts for longer periods of time than we would like to admit.

If we can’t forgive, then we must condemn ourselves for our own thoughts. As we condemn our thoughts, we bury our thoughts. We may not take psychotropic drugs, but we may self-medicate with alcohol, excessive shopping, excessive television, and the like. All of these things are forms of resistance, and what we resist truly does persist.

As we try to control our thinking, our resistance lets our thinking take control of us. The harder we resist, the more our fearful and frightening thoughts take front and center stage in our minds. But, there is an alternative to this never-ending struggle, beginning with the liberal application of the healing balm of forgiveness and compassion.

Forgiveness is ours as we become aware of our own negative thinking but do not judge, resist, or justify our unwanted thoughts—we find that troubled thoughts pass by as easily as clouds drifting by on an otherwise sunny afternoon. Then we are free to allow thoughts of kindness, of compassion, and of peace come to us. I’m under no illusion that the cycle of violence in the world will be end anytime soon; but as we forgive ourselves for our own toxic thinking and we forgive Maj. Hasan, we will be just a little bit more compassionate, a little bit kinder, and a little bit more effective in our organizations. We will make our own little corner of the world just a bit more peaceful.


7 Responses to Forgiving Major Hasan

  1. Tesh says:

    Forgiveness is not forgetfulness. We do forget the pain and anger, but we can’t afford to forget the actions themselves, lest we repeat them.

    Forgiveness is indeed letting go of the anger and the pain, even while we learn from our mistakes.

  2. ReddyEye says:

    The moral that I take away from the Hasan story is that religious belief, or at least one’s interpretation of it, is much more powerful than logic or any college education that money can buy. We do not know all the details of the story, but I suspect when the final chapter is written it will show that Hasan is not mentally ill, but is someone who concluded that his actions were just based on his religious interpretation. I stress ‘his religious interpretation’ because I know that many Muslims strongly disagree with his actions.

  3. Tesh,

    I agree. Can we hold people accountable and learn from the situation without a heart filled with vengeance, anger and blame?

    In a book I greatly admire Bonds That Make Us Free BYU philosophy professor Terry Warner explains why when our heart is full of blame (in this case against Hasan and/or against Islam) we can never really forgive or learn from the experience.


    I think I agree with you that in the end Hasan’s religious doctrines were stronger than any other values he may have held. Part of the function of my piece was to point out how may have gotten there. His professors by treating him differently began to solidify his belief that he was different and apart from his colleagues and fellow Americans. So the irony is that preferential treatment may have strengthened his beliefs. That being said, I strongly suspect that psychotropic drugs were involved. His actions fit the description of medication spellbinding that Breggin gives us .

  4. Traci says:

    As you imply, the idea of suggesting forgiveness for a murderer can be a spark that lights a controversial and passionate debate. It is an idea that can be agreed upon more easily with the rational part of our brains and rejected with equal force by our emotional intellect.

    If anyone is interested in a fantastic (if not emotional) read on forgiveness, I suggest “The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness” by Simon Weisenthal. From’s website, “Author Simon Weisenthal recalls his demoralizing life in a concentration camp and his envy of the dead Germans who have sunflowers marking their graves. At the time he assumed his grave would be a mass one, unmarked and forgotten. Then, one day, a dying Nazi soldier asks Weisenthal for forgiveness for his crimes against the Jews. What would you do? This important book and the provocative question it poses is birthing debates, symposiums, and college courses. The Dalai Lama, Harry Wu, Primo Levi, and others who have witnessed genocide and human tyranny answer Wiesenthal’s ultimate question on forgiveness.”

    I read the book many years ago and while I don’t recall many of the important specifics any more, I often recall my feelings while I was engrossed in the debate waged within my mind over the powerful idea of forgiveness. From that book and my own life experiences, I believe that you have to actively and deliberately strive for forgiveness and that it can be very difficult to achieve. Nonetheless, for numerous reasons (including those presented above), I believe that forgiving is a goal worth seeking.

  5. Traci,

    Speaking of concentration camps, your comments reminded me of this famous quote by Victor Frankl (who was in a concentration camp):

    We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

    Whether we forgive or not is as you say easier said then done, but the quality of our own life is on the line.

  6. Bob G. says:

    Everything works against the foundation of honesty and directness in assessing ourselves, our actions, our policies and thus our ability to dialogue on root causes of behaviours. Ego is the advesary of individuals. Fear is the advesary of individuals and social groups.

    Fear based thinking allows individuals to rationalize the use of myopic lenses and to find comfort and support in the herd mentality of the social group who has pegged the latest culprits of their most recent pseudo-victimization.

    What is ironic is that often an honest and direct dialogue that is not subject to the latest political correctness litmus test will often be the best salve for eliminating the harmful stereotyping that politcal correctness claims as its purpose.

    Sometimes, a mirror would be the best tool in for people to start with.

  7. Sundiata M. El-Amin,M.D. says:

    I knew this man extremely well.He was a very compassionate and generous individual. I never saw this man turn anyone away that needed help, he would help everyone! He and I used to pray together almost everyday at Masjid Allah, a stones throw away from Walter Reed Army Hospital in Wash.,D.C. Conversations with him nevwer uncovered any radical views or any violent tendencies. In fact,I never saw any blemishes in his character or his personality,and I knew him well for 3-4 years. We ate dinner together almost weekly and I am as surprised as anyone that this has happened.I would have never guessed that he would ever be involved in some thing like this. In fact,during the time I knew him, I can honestly say that most of his closest friends were not foreigners but the poor African-American Muslims in Washington,D.C. To my knowledge,I truly doubt any strong ties existed between him and any terrorist organization, especially during the time I knew him. Life is perplexing, I remember I used to always complain to him that the members would’nt give enough to pay the rent on the Mosque and he would always say,”El-Amin, In the Hearafter, Allah The Most High is going to give you the most beautiful Mosque you’ve ever seen!Why,I said.Because this is the Mosque you always wanted to build for Allah.Whether you got the chance or not,Allah will order the Angels to write it down in your Book of Good Deeds” Then Major Hasan would reach for his check-book and write a check to pay the rent on Masjid Allah! This is the man that I knew.I feel so bad and hurt that this has happened I truly wish as a Physician there was some way that I could bring those killed back to life—but I can’t.

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