My struggle with PTSD and the existence of evil

On November 5, 2009, I was assigned as the Non-Commissioned Officer in charge of the 24-hour staff duty at my unit’s barracks on Fort Hood, Texas. Typically, this duty is one of the most mundane activities of military service. Your job is, in essence, to sit, along with two junior enlisted soldiers, for 24 hours straight, occasionally making rounds in the barracks area to pick up cigarette butts and, on the weekend, corral drunk young soldiers. Your biggest challenge is simply staying awake for the duration of it. That night, however, was different. That was the day Major Nidal Hasan opened fire on a group of soldiers in a building across the street from my unit’s barracks.

We could hear the gunshots from where we stood in my unit’s barracks area. The sound of a firing weapon is no novelty on the United States’ largest military base. Eventually, the sounds of weapons, humvees, helicopters and other loud military equipment becomes mere background noise to most soldiers. There is a sense of security that envelops you when you are on a stateside post. You are surrounded by the finest men and women you have ever met, men and women you trust with your life and well being. There is no sense of community quite like the sacred bond between uniformed service members. That is precisely why these particular gunshots were so disturbing. They were different. They were closer than they should have been, nowhere near a firing range. And the sense of uneasiness they at first sent through us was quickly validated by a call from our superiors, ordering us to place the soldiers in the barracks on lock down and informing us that there had been a shooting on post. The sacred bond had been violated; a soldier had attacked his fellow soldiers at their most vulnerable moment, sitting in a waiting room waiting to be medically cleared to deploy and fight for their country, side-by-side with their comrades.
We spent the afternoon in a haze of rumor and worry. Each of us struggled, in spite of clogged phone lines, to get through to our friends and family in and around Fort Hood, verifying one at a time that each was safe. While we waited for more information from those in the know, we did our jobs to secure our own area and speculated on what might be happening. There was talk of a team of shooters. There were rumors that the shooting had continued in a housing area, a particularly nasty rumor given that soldiers’ wives and children were home alone in those housing areas.
Finally, in the evening, we sat outside of the barracks and watched the miles-long traffic as soldiers, who had spent their entire day locked down on post, headed home to their worried families in the on-post housing areas and the neighborhoods in the surrounding community. It was perhaps the only night we spent on staff duty in which none of us nodded off to sleep. We stayed up the whole night pondering the motives and the consequences of the atrocity we had been so near. Even when I drove home the following morning, after nearly 30 hours without sleep, I found it difficult to lay in my bed and rest.
The shooting yesterday at Fort Hood brought back the vivid memories of that afternoon and evening nearly five years ago. I stayed awake much later than I should have, watching the online live feed of the Killeen, Texas, television news station, reading over and over again the meager details of what had occurred on the post at which I had spent the majority of my military career. What affected me most as I watched and read was the frequent reference to the possibility that the shooter may have had post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The agenda of the media was obvious from very early. At the initial press briefing by Fort Hood’s commanding general, Lieutenant General Mark Milley, reporters asked ridiculous questions about soldiers carrying concealed weapons on post and, again and again, about the mental health history of the shooter.
Last night, I believe I felt much as people with Asperger syndrome must have when the media collectively felt the need to mention again and again that Adam Lanza, who opened fire at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012, had been diagnosed with Asperger’s. There was talk about how people with Asperger’s are incapable of feeling empathy, how this might have been the reason he did what he did. This was the preconceived narrative reporters were already concocting only minutes after the shooting at Fort Hood. He had PTSD and PTSD makes you a stone-cold killer.
I was diagnosed with PTSD a little over two years ago. My tours in Iraq had taken a toll on me. I found myself unable to deal with or control my anger, at times, or my sadness, at others. I had trouble sleeping and when I did finally sleep it was fitful and filled with nightmare images of things I had seen, people I had known and lost. I still struggle with this. The nightmares are less frequent, but they have not gone away. I still cannot watch movies with much violence. If I find myself in a crowded place, I enter a state of hyper-awareness in which I can hardly manage to think or breathe. While driving to work through downtown Savannah, Georgia, I scan the roadside for improved explosive devices (IEDs/roadside bombs); my fists tighten into a white-knuckle grip on the steering wheel when I get caught in rush hour traffic. I struggle with all of this. But I am not a murderer. I am not an “active shooter incident” waiting to happen. I am a soldier who, like most other soldiers I know, deals the best he can with what he has seen, knowing that I was there for the right reasons, even if few Americans appreciate it and even fewer understand it.
At the heart of the media’s agenda in the aftermath of shootings like that which occurred yesterday at Fort Hood is a distorted approach to ethics in the modern world. In an America now almost 50 years after the upheavals of the 1960’s and the imposition of radically different ways of viewing human being and activity, we have lost our moral compass. The rapist is “sick” and the murderer is “psychotic.” For a short time after I left the military, I worked in a prison where I saw this approach up close and personal. Men who had murdered in cold blood, men who had sexually molested young children and others of a similar moral caliber were “treated” as if what they had done were the unavoidable symptoms of a disease. The result was that the men themselves came to believe this. Rather than seeking forgiveness and redemption, they instead sought a “cure” for their “sickness.” Of course, this cure was entirely personal. It did not involve begging those they had harmed to forgive them, nor did it involve repentance before a just yet merciful God. Instead, more often than not, it involved medication that numbed their senses and meetings in which they prattled on about their feelings for hours, shortly before they went back to their cell blocks to watch hours of television, much of which celebrated the very crimes they had committed.
The man who committed that horrible atrocity at Fort Hood yesterday was not sick. He was not insane. He did not do what he did because he had PTSD. American news media: the word you are looking for is “evil.” What he did was evil and, just as virtuous men do virtuous things, it is evil men who do evil things. The victims here are the three soldiers he murdered, the 16 he injured, their families and every soldier everywhere who has now had that sacred bond of trust between warriors shattered. The shooter is not a victim, whether of his own disease or of the military which gave him the orders to go to the place he acquired it. We must return to the proper language used to describe and define human activity, the language of ethics. He chose evil and so became evil.

"I have to find Zaabalawi"

Naguib Mahfouz’s short story “Zaabalawi” exhibits the qualities of both the traditional allegorical stories often told in the mystical traditions of many religions as well as the dreamlike tales of twentieth century existentialists such as Franz Kafka. In bringing together these two streams of thought, Mahfouz establishes himself directly in the line of religious existentialists such as Soren Kierkegaard and especially the storytellers of that tradition, the most remarkable of whom is probably Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Mahfouz also brings a unique element to this synthesis of mysticism and existentialism in drawing upon the contents of his Islamic heritage to present a story that is both universal in its meaning and yet unique Islamic in its content.

The character from whose perspective the story is told is never explicitly identified by name. As with other stories which stand in the existentialist strain, the identity of the main character as an individual person is unnecessary and perhaps evens a dangerous distraction. Rather, the story itself is a means by which the reader can enter into the subjectivity of another. The main character has no individual identity; the reader is expected to identify himself or herself with that character. In this story, the character is suffering from “that illness for which no one possesses a remedy.” Although ailment remains unexplained and undefined throughout the story, it is clear that the reader is expected to identify with it; it is the universal human condition identified by Kierkegaard as “the sickness unto death,” a state of despair at the meaninglessness and ennui that permeate human life.

The main character of the story, and the reader through him, sets out on a desperate search to find Zaabalawi, the only one who can heal his affliction. Although Zaabalawi is identified as a holy man and sheikh, it is clear from what is said about him that he stands as a symbol of God. The first sentences of the story, in which the character explains why he decided to search for Zaabalawi, make this connection clear. He explains that “the first time I had heard of his name had been in a song.” The connection with Islamic worship practices, in which prayers are generally recited in song and chant, makes the identification of Zaabalawi with God obvious.

The ensuing search for Zaabalawi consists of a number of short scenes in which the main character questions various characters concerning the nature and whereabouts of Zaabalawi. Each of these characters represents a group in Islamic society and their stereotyped reactions to and thoughts on God. A businessman, for instance, exhibits little interest in Zaabalawi and even seems to imply he may be dead, a parallel with Friedrich Nietzsche’s famous exclamation on the death of God, that is, the irrelevance and unsustainability of the idea of God in the modern mind. Similarly, a theologian who is questioned about Zaabalawi responds to the main character by drawing a complex map the character is unable to understand, a scene which conjures the famous words of Thomas Aquinas, a Medieval monk who is one of Christianity’s most prolific and influential theologians. Late in his life, he experienced a mystical vision which caused him to state to his companions that “all that I have written seems like straw compared to what has now been revealed to me,” after which statement he never wrote again. In other words, the both Aquinas and Mahfouz reject the complicated conjecture and theory of the academic theologians in favor of a direct approach to God through mysticism. Interestingly, all of the characters who is featured in this series of scenes exhibit a felt absence of someone who is very important to their lives. Although not all of them are willing to acknowledge the importance of this person to their lives, each clearly feels that something is lacking because of this person’s absence.

After a series of such encounters, the main character finally has a direct mystical experience of Zaabalawi/God. In line with many mystical traditions from around the world, including the Sufi tradition of Islam, this experience is presented as a state of intoxication and a kind of stupor. The main character experiences a “deep contentedness” and “ecstatic serenity” as well as ontological unity with the cosmos. The disorientating imagery used by Mahfouz to describe the experience, including phrases such as “the world turned round about me and I forgot why I had gone there,” is reminiscent of the practice of whirling famously associated with certain groups of Sufis.

Following his experience, the main character is unaware that he has had a direct experience of Zaabalawi. He becomes more determined in his search. Mahfouz’s conclusion once again brings together the mystical and existential in his thought. The main character confides that he sometimes doubts Zaabalawi’s very existence and yet he asserts that he is unable to go on without him. His search for Zaabalawi, he concludes, must continue.

How the plague killed Latin

A few scholars have also seen a decline in the quality of Latin knowledge and even of handwriting among the clergy after 1350, both because thousands of Latin teachers died in the plague, putting greater burdens of instruction on those who survived to teach the new recruits, and because the length of time devoted to study of the language and mastering the beautiful calligraphy may have declined. Vernacularization, in turn, was given a fillip by the crisis.

William Chesterton Jordan, Europe in the High Middle Ages, p. 298

Modern superstition and the price we pay

It is true … that in recent times civilized man has acquired a certain amount of will power, which he can apply where he pleases. He has learned to do his work efficiently without having recourse to chanting and drumming to hypnotize him into the state of doing. He can even dispense with a daily prayer for divine aid. He can carry out what he proposes to do, and he can apparently translate his ideas into action without a hitch, whereas the primitive seems to be hampered on each step by fears, superstitions, and other unseen obstacles to action. The motto “Where there’s a will, there’s a way” is the superstition of modern man.

Yet in order to sustain his creed, contemporary man pays the price in a remarkable lack of introspection. He is blind to the fact that, with all his rationality and efficiency, he is possessed by “powers” that are beyond his control. His gods and demons have not disappeared at all; they have merely got new names. They keep him on the run with restlessness, vague apprehensions, psychological complications, an insatiable need for pills, alcohol, tobacco, food — and, above all, a large array of neuroses.

C.G. Jung, “Approaching the Unconscious,” Man and His Symbols, p. 71