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.

Law and Gospel

The religious form of legalistic ethics is to be found in pharisaism. It is a mistake to imagine, as many Christians do, that Pharisees were morally and religiously on a low level and to use the word almost as a term of abuse. On the contrary, pharisaism was the highest point reached by the Jews in their moral and religious life. And, indeed, starting from the hard-set ground of the Old Testament religion of the law it was impossible to rise higher. But it was this pure and lofty form of Judaism that Christ denounced. The thing that impresses one most in reading the Gospel is the rebellion against pharisaism, the denunciation of its falsity as compared with the New Testament truth. That means the denunciation of legalistic morality, of the idea of justification by the law, and of complacent self-righteousness. The Gospel puts sinners and publicans above the Pharisees, the unclean above the clean, those who have not fulfilled the law above those who have fulfilled it, the last above the first, the perishing above the saved, “the wicked” above “the good”. This is the paradox of Christian morality which the Christians have found it hard to understand and accept. Christians imagine that the Gospel denunciations refer to Pharisees who lived in the distant past, and themselves join in rhetorically denouncing them as villains. But in truth those denunciations refer to ourselves, to us who are living to-day, to the self-righteous, to the morally “first” and “saved” of all times. The Gospel morality as such will be discussed later. But what does this paradox mean? Why shall the first in the moral sense be last and vice versa? Why is it better to be a sinner conscious of his sin than to be a Pharisee conscious of his righteousness? The usual explanation is that the sinner is humble while the Pharisee is proud, like the Stoic, and Christianity is first and foremost a religion of humility. It seems to me that this explanation does not go to the root of the disquieting problem. The Pharisees stood on the confines of two worlds, at the dividing line between the ethics of law and the ethics of grace and redemption. The impotence of the ethics of law to save from sin an evil had to be made manifest in them. The difficulty of the problem lies in the fact that the precepts of legalistic ethics are fully practicable. One can fulfill the law down to the smallest detail and become pure according to the law. This was precisely what the Pharisees did. And then it appeared that the perfect fulfillment of the law and perfect purity do not save, do not lead to the Kingdom of God. The law sprang up as a result of sin, but it is powerless to free man from the world in which he found himself after plucking the fruit of the tree of knowledge. It is powerless to conquer sin and cannot save. Pharisaism, i.e. the ethics of law, is mercilessly condemned in the Gospel because its adherents do not need the Savior and salvation as sinners and publicans need it, because if the final religious and moral truth were on the side of the Pharisees redemption would be unnecessary. Pharisaism means rejection of the Redeemer and redemption and the belief that salvation is to be found by fulfilling the moral law. But in truth salvation means rising above the distinction between good and evil which is the result of the Fall, i.e. rising above the law engendered by that distinction. It means entering the Kingdom of Heaven, which is certainly not the Kingdom of the law or of the good as it exists on this side of the distinction.

Nikolai Berdyaev, The Destiny of Man, pp. 98-9