A shroud of political correctness settled over the conversation. Hasan was portrayed as a victim of society, a poor soul who was pushed over the edge by prejudice and unhappiness.
There was a national rush to therapy. Hasan was a loner who had trouble finding a wife and socializing with his neighbors.
This response was understandable. It’s important to tamp down vengeful hatreds in moments of passion. But it was also patronizing. Public commentators assumed the air of kindergarten teachers who had to protect their children from thinking certain impermissible and intolerant thoughts. If public commentary wasn’t carefully policed, the assumption seemed to be, then the great mass of unwashed yahoos in Middle America would go off on a racist rampage.
Worse, it absolved Hasan — before the real evidence was in — of his responsibility. He didn’t have the choice to be lonely or unhappy. But he did have a choice over what story to build out of those circumstances. And evidence is now mounting to suggest he chose the extremist War on Islam narrative that so often leads to murderous results.
The conversation in the first few days after the massacre was well intentioned, but it suggested a willful flight from reality. It ignored the fact that the war narrative of the struggle against Islam is the central feature of American foreign policy. It ignored the fact that this narrative can be embraced by a self-radicalizing individual in the U.S. as much as by groups in Tehran, Gaza or Kandahar.
It denied, before the evidence was in, the possibility of evil. It sought to reduce a heinous act to social maladjustment. It wasn’t the reaction of a morally or politically serious nation.
And I was unsettled and mulling over the specific, but unarticulated, contrary notion that David Brooks was, actually, very wrong. Luckily for me, I've got Jonathan Turley on the same page. While on The Rachel Maddow Show on November 12, Turley said this:
There are plenty of people who act out of rage. If you take away a few of the aspects of this case, you would have a typical disgruntled worker shooting. We have, with these shootings all over the country, where people are disturbed, disgruntled, and isolated, and they come in and they shoot people in their work place. Now, some of them are perfectly unhinged and they will latch onto religious views or political views, but what they're really acting out of is mental illness.
That doesn't deny any action of evil. What it does do is say, "Your war narrative may not be the most salient point. It is just the most convenient one, and the one that will let you sleep most soundly tonight." What it does say is, "Evil does not lurk only in the hearts of men we see as not like ourselves. It can be in any one of us, and so none of us are truly safe." What it does say is, "Religious convictions may not be the ignition of this deadly passion. It may just be the vehicle this particular person chose to take".
What bothers me about David Brooks' article is that assertion the politically and morally immature nation is the nation that stops before stomping in like gangbusters and making assertions and assumptions without gathering all of the facts. For my money, it is the nation that has matured in both its political and moral arenas that disallows the presumption of one metanarrative over the perhaps more on point micronarratives.
What also bothers me about Brooks' piece is how these discussions of how the metanarratives impact how violence is dispersed are only prevalent when the provocateur is someone other than a white, Christian man. When the perpetrator is a white, Christian man, the assumption is that this case is an isolated incident that has no greater baring on society. That this person is a sport, that his actions have nothing to do with our own metanarratives. We can still see those acts of violence as actions of evil just fine. And by seeing them as actions of evil, we manage to separate them from our person.
As the Historiann notes,
it’s only the occasional story in the print media or on the radio that will note how very much like other American mass-murderers Hasan truly is: a native-born American man, aged 13-60, who has difficult relationships with peers and co-workers, and especially with women. (Not coincidentally, a lot of these killers are strongly invested in traditional gender hierarchies and see themselves as at odds with modern American women, who think they can make their own decisions about whom they’ll date or spend time with.)
I'm all for examining how systemic beliefs parlay into actions, violent or otherwise. I'm all for examining how those systemic beliefs and images and messages influence how we as a people react to actions, violent or otherwise. I'm a big believer in systemic influences, both positive and negative. And yet, we can't lose sight of the individual either, and how the individual's own maladies (or lack thereof) influence how much that message takes hold, and how it is expelled upon the world.
The thing David Brooks seems to be missing is that the idea we should hold off on saying, "Islamic extremist!" in this case isn't simply (or even) to stop the swells of people in Middle America from going on murderous rampages of their own. It is an effort to better ourselves, to look beyond our minute fairy tale beliefs in good and evil and how that good and evil is displayed, and search for deeper and more concrete answers. It is an effort to elevate ourselves, both as individuals and as a society, beyond the prejudices that say "if someone has a funny name and dark skin and reads out of a different book than mine, that book must be the source of the problem". It is in an effort to become a more politically and morally mature nation, a nation that does not see every act of violence perpetrated by someone in the category of Other as stemming from reasons wholly separate from acts of violence perpetrated by someone not in that category. That we can work to reasonably suss out where the act of violence stems from, understand what could have been possible catalysts, recognize those catalysts, and still understand the actions as being evil and the actor of creating evil. Because an action borne out of social maladjustment can exist within the possibility of evil just as much as an action borne out of religious extremism can. To deny that, to deny the want to assess alternate possibilities under the cry of it being a denial of evil is, I think, in itself an act of an immature nation.