OPINION: Shooter’s religious extremism is psychologically grounded

Despite his sports coat and formal, academic demeanor, Dr. J Harold Ellens somehow looked right at home amid the palm leaves and statues of the Buddha decorating the hotel lounge.
“They frequently have ultimate problems with ultimate violence,” Ellens told me in September, describing what it’s like for soldiers when expectations change so radically for them between the battlefield and home.
Ellens is a leading authority on matters concerning psychology and the military. He recently spent a month at Columbus Air Force Base counseling soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan about reintegrating into society.
Ellens’ subtle, hard edge comes from his combat experience in Vietnam and Korea. After 37 years in the Army he retired a colonel, and his concern for soldiers is much more than clinical, it’s personal.
“It used to be called ‘battle fatigue’,” said Ellens. “Then we started calling it ‘shell shock,’ now it’s ‘post-traumatic stress syndrome.’ It’s getting reported more now, of course.” A sadness crept into his voice as he spoke about recent events at Fort Carson in Colorado. Soldiers returning from Iraq and stationed there had been accused of being involved in 11 slayings since 2005.
On the other hand, Ellens explained, trauma from battle isn’t always to blame.
With the United States fighting wars in two countries today’s volunteer military is stretched thin. The armed services need soldiers and Ellens is convinced that as a result more people with psychological problems are slipping in.
That certainly appears to be the case with Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, the man accused of killing 13 and wounding 29 during a shooting spree at Fort Hood in Texas.
“This fellow obviously has borderline personality syndrome,” Ellens told me this week by phone. “It’s been evident all along but nobody took any serious action to intervene. He was allowed to carry on this nefarious lifestyle, forming associations with terrorists that were direct but not clearly criminal.”
The reason nobody intervened, Ellens believes, is because Hasan is Muslim and any action against him in today’s military culture would have “raised an enormous brouhaha.” Reports suggest that Hasan’s distorted religious beliefs motivated his actions.
Ellens, who is Presbyterian, is also editor in chief emeritus of the Journal of Psychology and Christianity. It brings him no pleasure to connect faith and murder, no matter how tenuously, but the underlying cause of Hasan’s actions, he’s convinced, isn’t religious.
“Every form of fundamentalism, whether it be Christian, Islamic or even mathematical fundamentalism, is a psycho-pathological phenomenon,” said Ellens.
“It is a malady in which the person believes that their perception of reality is the only right one and that everyone and everything else must be made to conform to it.”
Over the phone Ellens paused, telling me that, once again, as was the case when we talked in Columbus, he found himself sitting at a restaurant table talking about highly sensitive matters.
“Borderline personalities display a towering narcissism, and they believe their actions have divine sanction,” he said, confidently but sadly.
“It’s really very sick, and tragic.”

Contact Daily Journal religion editor Galen Holley at 678-1510 or galen.holley@djournal.com

Galen Holley/NEMS Daily Journal