Recently, all of us were shocked by news of the horrendous shooting incident at the Fort Hood military base in Texas. Along with many people around the world, I have prayed for the victims and their families. I have also prayed for the shooter and his family. And I've been thinking all week about how A Course in Miracles would have us respond to this incident, and how following the Course's counsel on how to treat our brothers might help us prevent tragedies like this in the future.
Those who follow the news know the horrific story: At about 1:30 pm on November 5, a gunman with two pistols opened fire at the Soldier Readiness Center on the base, where soldiers being deployed to or returning from military operations were receiving medical screenings. Thirteen people were killed and twenty-nine were wounded; as of this writing, a number of them remain in the hospital, some in critical condition. Police returned fire, shooting the gunman four times; he is currently in stable condition at an Army hospital. The gunman was eventually identified as Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, a psychiatrist working with soldiers who had returned from Iraq and Afghanistan.
How would the Course have us respond to such an awful event? I think it would counsel a dual response. On the one hand, it would want us to hold in our own minds the happy truth that pain and suffering of any kind, including this event, are not real. Incidents like this always remind me of Workbook Lesson 14, which has us bring to mind the "horrors of the world" (W-pI.14.4:1) one by one, and say as each one comes to mind: "God did not create that disaster [specify], and so it is not real" (W-pI.14.4:7). With the Fort Hood incident, we could say, "God did not create those shootings, and so they are not real." This may sound weak and ineffectual, but I personally find it immensely reassuring if I really allow it to sink in. It is deeply comforting to me that no matter how things look on the outside, we are as God created us, we remain in His heavenly embrace, and ultimately all is well.
On the other hand, the Course would want us to offer an appropriately compassionate and truly helpful response to everyone affected by the incident, a response guided by the Holy Spirit. (This response would almost certainly not involve telling suffering people the shootings weren't real.) This response would not only embrace the shooting victims and their families, but would also include forgiveness for the shooter and compassion for his family. Thus, I was heartened by the words of the Fort Hood chaplain, Col. Frank Jackson. At a service in the base's chapel, he asked worshippers to pray not only for the dead and wounded, but also for Hasan and his family, "as they find themselves in a position that no person ever desires to be." He prayed: "And Lord, teach us to love and pray for those who rise up against us and pray for those who do us harm. We pray for Maj. Hasan. Asking that you do the work that only you can do in his life." Amen to that.
How might following the Course's counsel on how to treat our brothers help us prevent tragedies like this in the future? There are many ways the Course can help, I'm sure. But there is one thing that keeps coming to me as I read the accounts of Hasan's life prior to the shootings. The impression I get from those accounts is that he was both extremely isolated and was dealing with an incredible amount of stress. He was essentially a loner; he isn't married and has no significant other, he apparently has few friends, his mother and father are dead, and he has no family close by. He has been living in an environment quite alien to him: a Muslim of Palestinian descent deep in the heart of small-town Texas. He was harassed for his Muslim beliefs; in one incident, an Army employee scraped his car with a key and tore off a bumper sticker than said "Allah is Love."
Moreover, as a psychiatrist, he was working with soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, many suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). It has long been known that counselors who hear the terrifying accounts of PTSD victims day in an day out can suffer what is called "secondary trauma," a vicarious experience of the suffering their patients describe. Dr. Antonette Zeiss, Deputy Chief of Mental Health Services for Veteran Affairs, says, "Anyone who works with P.T.S.D. clients and hears their stories will be profoundly affected."
Indeed, Hasan's entire work environment must have had a profound effect on him. Fort Hood is highly stressed because of repeated deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan; it has the highest suicide rate of any Army base in the country. An Army study done last year concluded, "Mental-health issues are a real problem for the Fort Hood population." It added that "families and friends…are also affected by the trauma the soldiers experience."
Adding to this stressful situation was Hasan's opposition to these wars, perhaps based both on the horrifying stories soldiers were telling him and on his religious misgivings about going to war in Muslim lands. (There is evidence that he may have gotten involved with extremist forms of Islam, though this hasn't yet been confirmed as of this writing.) This opposition must have made him feel even more alien in the American military culture in which he was immersed; in fact, he had been trying to get out of the Army, without success. Finally, on top of all this, he was soon to be deployed to Afghanistan himself, and there was no way for him to get out of it.
So, we have a man who was both extremely isolated and extremely stressed. And the question that keeps coming to me as I read these accounts is this: Was there ever anyone who attempted to reach out and make a real human connection with Hasan? Was there anyone who saw how alone he was and the stress he was under and tried to help? Perhaps there was, but so far that doesn't appear to be the case. It seems that Hasan was facing his many demons pretty much all by himself. And eventually, the demons won.
Let me be clear: I'm not saying that these things caused him to do what he did. Hasan is responsible for his actions. We all have a choice about how to respond to our circumstances, and of course most people under stress don't respond by going on a shooting rampage. But the things that happen to us do influence us, even if they don't force us to do certain things. And it does seem that in this case, isolation and stress created a toxic brew that finally exploded, with tragic results.
This leads directly to that one thing that keeps coming to me: the Course's teaching on the holy encounter. In the Course's view, every encounter should be a holy encounter in which we exchange salvation with a brother whom we see as inseparable from ourselves. We're all familiar with the famous passage:
When you meet anyone, remember it is a holy encounter. As you see him you will see yourself. As you treat him you will treat yourself. As you think of him you will think of yourself. Never forget this, for in him you will find yourself or lose yourself. Whenever two Sons of God meet, they are given another chance at salvation. Do not leave anyone without giving salvation to him and receiving it yourself. For I am always there with you, in remembrance of you. (T-8.III.4:1-8)
I can't help but wonder: Would things have turned out differently at Fort Hood if more people had treated their encounters with Hasan as holy encounters? It doesn't matter whether or not they were Course students or used the term "holy encounter." What I'm asking is: How would things have played out if more people really tried to connect with him as a person? What if they saw him and treated him as a brother calling for help? What if they recognized that in helping him, they were helping themselves? Perhaps there were people in his life who did this. I don't know. But I really wonder.
Now, there's no guarantee that this would have prevented the shootings. But holy encounters can bring about dramatic, life-changing transformations in people. I'm reminded, for instance, of the former neo-Nazi skinhead Frank Meeink, whose life is the basis of the movie American History X. He was the most violent of thugs, with a deep hatred of Jews, blacks, and virtually anyone else different from him. His transformation began in prison, when a black man who knew exactly what he stood for (the tattoos alone gave him away) invited him to join a Bible study group. The men of the group, all of whom were black, befriended him and welcomed him as a brother. Later, a Jewish doctor offered to remove his Nazi tattoos. After he was released, he worked for a Jewish boss who treated him with respect in spite of his past. As a result, Meeink eventually came to see that all people are equally worthy of love, and now spends his life teaching a message of tolerance and universal brotherhood.
In using Meeink's story, I'm not suggesting that Hasan is the equivalent of a neo-Nazi. In fact, Hasan had no history of violence prior to the shootings, and seemed to get along with everyone, even if he didn't have any close friends. He was kind to his neighbors and even forgave the guy who damaged his car. And we still don't know what role extremist Islam may have played in what happened. My point is simply that holy encounters can bring transformation and healing. So, who knows what would have happened if Hasan had encountered just the right person at just the right time, someone who chose to see him as a beloved brother in need of help? It may have changed his life forever and prevented a terrible tragedy.
But my intention here is not to pass judgment on Hasan or on those who encountered him at Fort Hood. Again, we don't know exactly what happened, and will probably never know the whole story. What I'm trying to do instead is apply this teaching to myself. Who are the loners in my life, those quiet people in the corner whom I tend to overlook or even avoid? What unknown stress and pain might they be going through? What if I choose to remember that every encounter with them is a holy encounter? What if I choose to see them with the eyes of love and treat them as lovingly as I want to be treated? What if I never leave anyone without giving salvation to him and receiving that gift for myself? What tragedies might be avoided if I do this, and what blessings might be born?
May we all see in this tragic event the call for forgiveness and for "the holy encounters in which salvation can be found" (T-13.IV.7:7).