In the wake of last Thursday's tragic shooting at Fort Hood, the American media have made much of Major Nidal Malik Hasan's religious affiliation and, more specifically, of his connection to a radical Muslim cleric based in Yemen.
Many voices on the right have touted Hasan's heinous actions as the latest evidence of Islam's corrupt and violent core. Most of the commentators on the left, by contrast, insist that Major Hasan was a victim of circumstance, and that his murderous rampage was precipitated by external pressures. Considering the left's reasoning, Michael Douglas's defense contractor turned urban vigilante in the 1993 film "Falling Down" comes to mind. At the time of that film's release, critic Roger Ebert wrote of it,
"What is fascinating about the Douglas character, as written and played, is the core of sadness in his soul. [...] There is no exhilaration in his rampage, no release. He seems weary and confused, and in his actions he unconsciously follows scripts that he may have learned from the movies, or on the news, where other frustrated misfits vent their rage on innocent bystanders."There is salient insight in the left's response, but generally assessments on both the political left and right are ideological and reductionistic. Media pundits are involved in a fraught game of Pin the Tail on the Donkey. While the right-wing strives to pin the tail on Islam, left-wing pundits do what they can to prevent that stigma from sticking. Precious intellectual and creative energy is expended in the process; these commentators could instead provide a full accounting of what causes people to turn to religious extremism, or to extremism of any sort.
I especially appreciated, then, Dave Belden's "How Do We Understand Major Hasan?," an OpEd-style post at Tikkun Daily. I encourage folks to read it. Belden writes,
"Given that in all of our lives personal pain intersects with cultural narratives, then it is surely no surprise that for the killers it’s rarely ever a simple question of either a sick individual or a follower of extremist ideas. Timothy McVeigh was surely both when he bombed the Oklahoma Federal Building. To mention his personal pain is not to excuse him, but should give pause to all those who demonize others."In response, I wrote in the comment section of Belden's post,
"In the media frenzy that passes for much contemporary news and politics, the humane aspects of most events or socio-political dynamics are generally overlooked. So, too, are the individuals involved reduced to caricatures and concepts. I wish I had some ideas as to how we, as a community, might address this ugly, dangerous spin. Alas…Photo credit: image ripped from Voice of America News
As for David Brooks and [those to his right], I frequently marvel at their incomplete assertion that Muslim extremism is the culprit (at Fort Hood, in particular, but globally, too). Why not continue the diagnosis, revealing the imbalanced, immoral global system that produces extreme poverty, social and political disenfranchisement, and national/ethnic resentment/competition as the source of the tsoris that drives so many young men and women to embrace extremism (or, at least, adds to the appeal of a black-and-white, reductionist world view)?
Certainly religious extremism should be condemned and confronted, but addressing the root cause (which is also to address social justice globally) seems more sensible. But, were the conservative commentators to finger that root, they would implicitly condemn their own condemnation, as it, too, is born of a naive, black-hat-versus-white-hat construction of our volatile, shrinking world."