03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Power Of Fear: Lessons From Ft. Hood

This week I found myself asking a simple, yet extremely complex, question: What causes someone to pick up a gun and shoot innocent people?

The situation of Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan is complicated for me.

First of all, his family is originally Palestinian. My experience working in human rights over the past decade has brought me in contact with many Palestinian activists and I have read countless accounts of the brutal reality Palestinians endure in the Occupied Territories. That amount of trauma and frustration is often passed down through generations and were perhaps part of Maj. Hasan's early childhood understanding of how the world is. In Palestine, innocent people die all the time and there is no justice for it.

Despite protests from his family, he joined the US military to protect the country of his birth. He was probably more patriotic to this country than many people I know, myself included.

He served dutifully for 14 years, 6 of which he counseled and supported countless soldiers upon their return from Iraq and Afghanistan. CBS news reports that in 2005 (among 45 reporting states) there were at least 6,256 suicides among those who served in the US armed forces. That's 120 each and every week, in just one year. Some are calling it an epidemic.

Maj. Hasan had to have had a view of the war in Iraq that was quite different than what most Americans hear on the news. According to his cousin, Maj. Hasan "was mortified" at the thought of being deployed to Iraq after the stories he had heard. And to be a practicing Muslim, the internal conflict he must have felt at fighting in a war that is all but declared along religious lines.

So bad was the harassment he endured from other soldiers after 9/11 that he had hired a lawyer to try and get discharged from service, even offering to pay the US government back for Med. School. No luck, he was forced to serve and was facing imminent deployment.

But even with all of those complexities, I wonder, what causes someone to actually pick up a gun and open fire on unsuspecting people?

The victims at Ft. Hood, like Maj. Hasan, were facing deployment to Iraq or had recently returned. Did he think he was saving them from something? Did fear have such a tight grip on him that he simply lost his mind and saw that as his only way out? Many of the details have yet to come out and I'm sure we will understand more, hopefully from Maj. Hasan himself, about his motives.

Being from Colorado, home to several horrific and nonsensical shootings in both schools and churches, I have often wondered about the point to which a person has to be pushed, how confused or deranged must they be, to justify such an act.

For me it all comes down to fear.

And this post is really about the Power of Fear.

Fear causes us to clam up, to search for the source of our fears and to target them with a vengeance. This level of fear leads to extreme hate and causes people to believe they are acting out of self-preservation when harming others. Perhaps somewhere deep down, it is in our DNA to react to overwhelming fear with violence.

But I believe that we all have the ability to override the Power of Fear.

I have been deathly afraid more than once in my life. While working in the Congo I was held at gunpoint. In Sri Lanka, I was locked in a room by three men with seriously bad intentions, and barely escaped through a bathroom window. And I spent three terrifying days being interrogated by the Chinese Armed Police in Tibet.

Although I have made friends with fear, I have not conquered it. Fear arises as an instinct. But the more we work with it, the less it controls our actions.

By taking the time to face what scares us, mentally putting ourselves in fearful situations, we can better recognize our emotional responses to fear (anger, hate, violence etc.); not react to them, just recognize them. Next, we can picture transforming our responses from reactive to proactive, from violent to safe (for ourselves and our adversaries).

The more we do this visualization from safe protected spaces, the lower the chances are that we will react to unanticipated fear with violence.

Try it for yourself, see what happens.

Instead of panicking when we are afraid and lashing out, we become familiar with fear and learn how to move through it skillfully.

I am not saying that when it comes down to actual self-preservation, one shouldn't do what they must to disarm or disable an attack. But rather that when we do not examine our fears, when we are slaves to the power of fear, we become unable to determine the difference between real and perceived danger.

Before long we are operating on auto-pilot, completely controlled by our fears...and I imagine that this is how someone picks up a gun and believes its OK to shoot innocent people.


Kiri Westby

Kiri Westby is featured in BE THE CHANGE, How Meditation Can Transform You And The World, by Ed and Deb Shapiro, with forewords by HH Dalai Lama and Robert Thurman. Contributors include Marianne Williamson, Seane Corn, Edgar Mitchell, Ellen Burstyn, Michael Beckwith, Jon Kabat-Zinn, Jane Fonda, Ram Dass, Jack Kornfield, Byron Katie, Dean Ornish, John Gray and others.