Myths of Fort Hood

Journalists seeking an easy answer in PTSD threaten to obscure the real story of Army psychiatrist Nidal Malik Hasan's rampage.

Why has it taken the massacre of 13 soldiers at Ford Hood to get headlines focused on the skyrocketing levels of post-traumatic stress disorder among returning American troops? In fact, Major Nidal Malik Hasan's rampage seems to have had little to do with his work as a psychiatrist, and the PTSD victims in this case will be among the survivors at Fort Hood. Yet the news-cycle hunger for easy explanation of Hasan’s rampage has misappropriated the desperately real issue of vets’ PTSD.

I heard the news of the Fort Hood shooting spree while at the annual conference of the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies — the association of mental health professionals who specialize in PTSD and who listen, day in and day out, to the sort of stories that reportedly burdened Hasan.

None of the psychiatrists and psychologists I spoke with at ISTSS — including those from the V.A. and military — knew Hasan.  He wasn’t a member of ISTSS and had only recently completed his residency at Walter Reed. Some early reports from the Washington Post and the Associated Press suggest he had a troubled start to his career, including personal difficulties with patients at Walter Reed that led staff to avoid making referrals to him. The New York Times, the AP and CNN all quote his supervisor Thomas Grieger as saying Hasan had difficulties that required counseling (though Grieger added to CNN that Hasan seemed responsive to supervision).

That professional profile stands alongside accounts from family members and acquaintances who describe Hasan as a deeply isolated individual, conflicted over his participation in the military and growing more orthodox in his beliefs even as he encountered real incidents of anti-Muslim discrimination. He had no friends, mourned a dead pet bird for months, felt none of the women he met at mosques were religious enough for him.  All of that may be accurate — but it isn’t PTSD.

As reporter and author Dave Cullen found in his definitive account of the Columbine shootings, early reporting of mass shootings — driven by chaos, weak sources and overeager news organizations — can easily get everything wrong. In the case of Columbine, Cullen found that myths about the Columbine killers generated in the first days and weeks persisted for years.

So what are the myths reporters are laying down about Fort Hood, and how do we avoid them? The stakes in understanding this tragedy are especially high. A casual conclusion of religiously motivated terrorism — as suggested by some commentators and Sen. Joe Lieberman, one of several politicians recklessly injecting themselves into what should be a professional criminal inquiry — could breed a backlash against Muslims in the military. The misattribution of Hasan's unprovoked spree to PTSD — the frame for many second-and-third-day news accounts — could stigmatize emotionally injured veterans.

And portraying a young, troubled army psychiatrist just months into his career as a PTSD expert turned into a killer by his work doesn't do justice to clinicians who have spent years with vets revisiting the most horrifying scenes of carnage, loss and atrocity in hopes of making the vets' lives better. Those psychotherapists do take on the very real risk of what experts call vicarious or secondary traumatization — but they work hard to understand and manage it. 

As a tragically teachable moment, the Fort Hood massacre has generated insightful comments about PTSD and the vulnerabilities of healers, such as comments by Laurie Anne Pearlman, Charles Figley,  Barbara Rothbaum, Frank Ochberg and Max Cleland.

But this is not the story of Hasan. My own equally unfounded speculation is that, when all is said and done, the best way to understand the Fort Hood killer will be to look at other mass shooters in workplaces and schools — diverse individuals linked, in most cases, not by politics, religious faith or diagnosis, but by escalating isolation and deranged grievance, homicidal and suicidal in equal measure. The victims and community at Fort Hood have more in common with places like Blacksburg and Port Arthur than with a base under attack; indeed, as Tonia Moxley reports in the Roanoke Times, military leaders are wisely reaching out to Virginia Tech's survivors for support and advice.

On the most literal level, this was a workplace mass shooting. In this case, the workplace happens to be a military base; the victims happen to be soldiers on what they thought was safe ground; and the shooter happens to be a psychiatrist charged with their care. Each of those is its own tragedy, with consequences that could echo for a long time.