Pathology and Ideology: Major Nidal Malik Hasan and the Case of Leon Czolgosz

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Mr. Daniel is PhD Candidate in the Departments of History and Political Science at the New School for Social Research and was a Researcher at the Emma Goldman Papers Project at the University of California, Berkeley.

The discourse in the public sphere debating the motivation of mass murderer Major Nidal Malik Hasan—the psychiatrist who recently shot forty-three people in Fort Hood, Texas—has taken two primary forms. The first argues he is a lone, depressed, and deranged gunman motivated by the stress of impending deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan. The second claims he is a terrorist motivated by an extremist ideology. Few have noted that he is likely both and that neither case is mutually exclusive.

Listening to radio, watching television, and reading the representatives of these two competing perspectives in the media conjures the case of Leon Czolgosz, the self-proclaimed anarchist who assassinated President William McKinley on September 6, 1901. Czolgosz was one of seven children born to Polish immigrants in 1873. His mother died when he was quite young and he entered the workforce to support his family. After working in a glass factory and a wire mill in Cleveland, Ohio, he suffered a nervous breakdown in 1897 and returned home to his family farm. It was at this time that Czolgosz embraced anarchism after reading anarchist newspapers, listening to speeches given by Emma Goldman and other anarchists, and attending meetings organized by a variety of anarchist groups. He even met Goldman, if briefly, as she left her hotel after giving a speech in Cleveland and he contacted Goldman and the publishers of the Chicago anarchist periodical Free Society in July 1901.

Czolgosz was greatly influenced by what he read in Free Society and other anarchist publications, in particular their unabashed support for Gaetano Bresci’s assassination of King Umberto of Italy in July 1900. He vocally identified with the goals and aspirations of the anarchist revolutionaries advocating attentats, or, “propaganda of the deed,” the assassinations of heads of state, industry and religion. After receiving numerous letters from Czolgosz inquiring how to get in contact with anarchist secret societies that advocated violence, the editors of Free Society went so far as to claim he was an agent provocateur. Historians remain unable to directly connect Czolgosz with any of the anarchist groups operating at the time.

The prosecution and many mainstream newspapers were convinced Czolgosz was part of a larger anarchist plot. Yet even if Czolgosz was not a member of any anarchist organization, anarchists were viewed as providing motivation and justification for the assassination. The Buffalo Evening News opined:

Emma Goldman bears a share of the crime; so do the publishers of anarchist papers and documents. The men who lecture in favor of anarchism share the crime of Czolgosz. The New York conclaves, the Chicago societies, the Cleveland clubs, the anarchists in Boston, Philadelphia and other places—they all bear a share in the great crime. They aided and stimulated the weak-minded Czolgosz.

While Thomas Sebastian Byrne writing for the New York Times claimed, “. . . men who profess or proclaim doctrines of which such unspeakable crimes are the issue should be made to understand and to feel that they cannot teach them in this country, nor can they themselves enjoy this country’s hospitality.”

There was a strong element of nativism in the case with some periodicals attempting to link anarchist violence to a recent increase in immigrants arriving from eastern and southern Europe. The Ohio Farmer (September 12, 1901) noted:

Organized anarchy in this free country must be declared a capital crime. There is no occasion for its existence here. Immigration laws must be made more strict and be more rigidly enforced, and keep out the murderous, fanatical dregs of Europe, who seek our shores only because there is greater opportunity to carry out their dark and bloody designs.

Radical support for the assassination was mixed with a majority of anarchists distancing themselves from the action and a small minority, including Goldman, defending Czolgosz. The police and prosecutor unsuccessfully attempted to link Goldman to Czolgosz, arguing she planned the attack. Czolgosz claimed one of Goldman’s speeches inspired his criminal behavior but denied she had any direct role in the assassination.

Five years after the trial Max Baginsky penned a supportive article in Goldman’s Mother Earth (October, 1906). After insinuating that Czolgosz was psychologically disturbed, Baginsky wrote:

The act of Czolgosz was the explosion of inner rebellion; it was directed against the savage authority of the money power, and against the government that aids its mammonistic crimes…His large, dreamy eyes must have beheld in the distance the rising dawn, heralding a new and glorious day. Five years have since rolled into eternity. His spirit still hovers over me. In tender love I lay these immortelles on his grave.

Goldman wrote a short essay in Czolgosz’ defense in 1911 which compared him to Jesus and proclaimed he died for the sins of the American people:

He suffered for them, endured humiliation for them, gave his life for them. His tragedy consisted in his great and intense love for the people, but unlike many of his brother slaves he could neither submit nor bow his neck. Thus he had to die.

Whether Czolgosz was a member of an anarchist cell dedicated to assassination and terrorism is not in dispute. He was not. However, he was a self-identified anarchist who held a personal identification with the goals of anarchist ideology and a willingness to act based on those ideological assumptions. So was Czolgosz a terrorist? Most historians today agree that he was.

This brings me to Hasan. The intelligence community, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation, informs the public there is no evidence that Hasan was assisted in his act nor that he was operating as part of a larger terrorist plot. However, in similarity to Czolgosz, he exhibited an affinity—if no direct affiliation—with a radical ideology that supports the murder of its opponents. Like Czolgosz, he committed a terrorist act promoted by pathology and ideology.

What do we know about Hasan’s contact and connections with radical Islamist organizations like al-Queda? According to media reports, Hasan became more devout after the death of his parents. The Department of Defense was aware Hasan corresponded with radical imam Anwar al-Aulaqi and used to attend his mosque in Falls Church, Virginia. Al-Aulaqi supports a holy war against the United States and knew three of the perpetrators of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center who also attended his Falls Church mosque.

National Public Radio reported psychiatrists at Walter Reed and the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences were concerned that Hasan might be psychotic. There was the power-point presentation Hasan gave at Walter Reed where he expressed that suicide bombings against American military personnel are justified. Titled, “The Koranic World View As It Relates To Muslims In The Military,” the presentation stated “Fighting to establish an Islamic state to please God, even by force, is condoned by the [sic.] Islam,” and recommended all Muslims in the American military be given the right to be released from combat duty as conscientious objectors. And there is the eyewitness testimony of victims who heard Hasan shout “Allahu Akbar” (or something similar) as he opened fire on them. Despite increasing evidence that Hasan had mental issues and identified with the goals and aspirations of radical Islam, officials and colleagues were evidently loathe to act in fear they would be identified as “Islamophobic” and possibly damage their career opportunities.

In a marked difference from newspaper accounts of the Czolgosz affair, some of the mainstream media today has avoided linking Hasan’s actions with his apparent belief in a radical ideology. The notable exceptions are conservative outlets like Fox News, talk radio and blogs. Some of these sources suggest linkages with al-Queda and a broader conspiracy that is likely inaccurate. Paralleling the past, there is also an element of nativism in some conservative accounts, including calls for halting immigration from Muslim countries. But I am puzzled why so many liberal periodicals are going to such great lengths to argue that ideology played no role in the murders.

As with Czolgosz, some radicals have mobilized to support Hasan. A Facebook group has been established to rally to his defense and writers for extremist Islamist and left-wing websites have tied themselves in knots trying to justify the attacks as understandable given reports that Hasan suffered from discrimination. They claim the prospect of deployment drove him to act in this despicable manner, or that he suffers from “Secondary Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder” or he is a man who simply cared too much. Others are more forthright about their beliefs. In the case of al-Aulaqi, Hasan’s act was justified against a tyrannical regime that paid for his medical education and promoted him to the rank of major. Al-Aulaqi went so far as to commend the attack on his website imploring other Muslims to “follow in the footsteps of men like Nidal.”

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arthur m. eckstein - 11/19/2009


1. The difference is the *nature* of the ultra-violence engaged in against *ordinary people* by the Islamic terrorists, and the fact that this ultra-violence gains them significant support among the Muslim population worldwide. This would not happened with your anarchists, and indeed, you indicate that it did not happen: their propaganda of the deed did not lead to widespread support. Exactly my point.

But in the Pew Report for 2006, if you look at the figures, a substantial percentage (varying from Muslim country to Muslim country) believed that violence against civilians could be justified: it averaged out at 49% (though it was as high as 71% in some countries, and very low in Lebanon). One couldn't have found that kind of widespread public acceptance of violence against ordinary people in Europe or America in the anarchist period--indeed, you just indicated that one couldn't.

This constitutes a general support system for people such as Hasan, which Czolgosz didn't have--people telling him he is right to have his thoughts, his anger, his desire to do violence, that indeed his culture demands that he act.

In the 2006 Pew Report as well, support for bin Laden is always pretty substantial as a percentage of the population, though it varies substantially from country to country. OBL had suffered a decline since 2002 (perhaps because he hadn't committed another major atrocity and therefore appeared weak!), but public support was nevertheless substantial (in the 40-50% range overall). This, although he was responsible for 2,800 civilian deaths on one day in the U.S.

Anarchists never had that kind of public support, Evan--and they were mostly targetting elites. The Cafe Terminus incident sparked widespread outrage, as you say.

2. The Dar al-Hijrah mosque is in Falls Church, Virginia--not in Yemen. It has a large congregation: the mosque holds 5,000 people. I have already laid out its history of radical leaders. It doesn't matter where al-Hanooti was born: he was the imam there for five years in the 1990s, after being named as an unindicted co-conspirator in the 1993 Trade Towers attack. Abu Ali wasn't the imam, but he was an American, and he *taught Islamic studies* at the mosque. And we know about al-Awlaki. Wherever he was born (he may well be an American citizen born in New Mexico), he spent his early life (1971-1978) here, and after 11 years in Yemen came back and went to college here, and post-graduate college here as well. You can't just call him a Yemeni.

But the point is this very large Virginia mosque as a social and ideological support system for Nidal Hasan. Czolgosz didn't have anything like this.



Evan M. Daniel - 11/19/2009

1. I refer to al-Aulaqi (or al-Awlaki) in my op-ed. But is he an American, like Hasan? From what I read al-Aulaqi may have born in the U.S., or maybe in Yemen. It is unclear. His parents moved back to Yemen when he was seven. So is he an *American* Muslim? I'm not so sure.

Ahmed Omar Abu Ali is an American Muslim. However, I would not consider him a religiously influential figure among American Muslims. For example, he never headed a mosque, he is not an imam, etc.

Is Mohammed al-Hanooti an American Muslim?

2. Absolutely. Anarchists are not known for beheadeding people. As to indiscriminate violence, there is the case of Émile Henry who bombed the Café Terminus. He is known for saying "There is no innocent bourgeois". Not the same as the Mumbai attack, but someone who was willing to indiscriminately kill civilians for his cause.

3. I agree that the targets of Islamist terrorists and anarchist terrorists are different and stated so in my reply above ("responding to the comments"). However, anarchists have been implicated in the killing of civilians as well. In addition to Émile Henry, the Sacco and Vanzetti case comes to mind and there are others.

As to the idea of "terror porn" and video production, I agree this is unique to Islamist terrorists and is used as a recruiting method by them.

But it is important to recognize that the political violence advocated by the proponents of propaganda of the deed was also viewed as a recruiting method.

So there are differences. But there are also important similarities.

"Terror porn" and propaganda of the deed are/were viewed with disgust by the general population. You can see when you read newspapers published in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the anarchists were seen in a very similar light to the Islamist terrorists of today i.e. criminal, bloodthirsty, etc. I'm sure you are familiar with the caricature of the bearded, black cloaked anarchist with a bomb. Yet both groups still saw that these forms of violence had some sort of recruitment value.

arthur m. eckstein - 11/19/2009

1. Well, Nidal was praised by Anwar al-Awlaki--who now lives in Yemen, to be sure, but whom he met as the imam of a major mosque in Virginia. Al-Awlaki has a significant world-wide following. Ahmed Omar Abu Ali, who was convicted of providing material support for Al-Qaeda and conspiring to assasination W., taught Islamic studies at this same major mosque. The previous imam of this mosque, just before al-Awlaki, was Mohammed al-Hanooti, who was an unindicted coconspirator in the 1993 Trade Towers attack. The mosque is built to hold 5,000 people. Czolgosz didn't havee this sort of support system.

2. No anarchists would have shown images of themselves beheading ordinary people, as the Muslim terrorists do. No anarchists would have used indiscriminate slaughters like the Mumbai massacre as a recruiting device.

3. Euro-anarchists did of course target elite people for violence and death, and in that sense it was the propaganda of the deed. That was true not only in the early 20th century but with the Red Army Fraction and the Red Brigades.

But we are talking about something else: terror-porn, really disgusting videos. Only Islamic terrorists make them, and they make them because there is an audience in he Muslim world for them. They are a recruiting tool, just like the Mumbai Massacre is. This would not have been the case for the anarchist terrorists on Europe and the U.S. in the earlier period. The difference needs to be both explicitly acknowledged, and explained.

Evan M. Daniel - 11/18/2009

Michael, thanks for the compliment. Much appreciated.

I agree there are differences between the two cases. I’m sure others can find more.

However, my main impetus for writing the op-ed was when I read and listened to various media accounts they seemed to fall into two broad camps. To generalize, those who view Hasan as psychotic and those who see him as a terrorist. I thought, why is it so hard to understand that someone can be both, like Czolgosz?

I also hear many people claiming that a lone gunman can not be a terrorist, that there needs to be some sort of direct connection to a terrorist group. That is another aspect of the discourse that brought Czolgosz to my mind.

While certainly influenced by a radical anarchist movement that supported assassination, Czolgosz had no direct connection to that movement. In fact, most anarchists active in the U.S. thought he was a police agent. They wanted nothing to do with him.

I must respectfully disagree with Arthur who writes:

“It seems to me that no anarchist group would have dared engage in such behavior, nor would it have had an audience on the left…The widespread circulation of depictions of such behavior would, on the contrary, have destroyed any popular support for the group, as people were repulsed. By contrast, Muslim radicals successfully use such videos as *recruiting tools*. It's a profound difference.”

Many Italian, Spanish, and French anarchists supported Czolgosz. Anarchist intellectuals regularly published articles and gave speeches supporting the assassination of politicians, royalty, religious leaders, capitalists and others. This was what “propaganda of the deed” was all about. They hoped these actions would encourage others to do the same. These actions, to use your words, were viewed as a “recruiting tool.”

And these were not marginal voices. They were very influential in the anarchist milieu and anarchism was an influential ideology among the working classes of France, Italy and Spain at this time. So there is a clear similarity between the actions of anarchists who promoted “propaganda of the deed” and Islamist terrorists even though the two groups have very different goals (“social revolution” vs. the establishment of a global caliphate).

Besides goals, another primary difference is the targets of these two groups. Islamist terrorists do not hesitate to kill civilians with little differentiation. The anarchists tended to target those they viewed as elites. So that is important to keep in mind.

But the notion that the anarchists did not openly publicize their willingness to use violence to achieve their goals and their hope that these acts would encourage others to do the same is not supported by the evidence. All one has to do is read anarchist newspapers published at the time. They were very open about it.

In addition to publicizing Alexander Berkman's attack on Henry Clay Frick in 1892, there was Auguste Vaillant's bombing of the French National Assembly in 1893, the assassination of French president Sadi Carnot by Italian anarchist Sante Geronimo Caserio in 1894, Michele Angiolillo Lombardi's assassination of Spanish Prime minister Antonio Cánovas del Castillo in 1897, Luigi Lucheni's assassination of Elisabeth of Bavaria in 1898 and Gaetano Bresci’s assassination of King Umberto of Italy in 1900 (the last attack is mentioned in my op-ed).

Unlike their Europe comrades, most anarchists in the United States did not support Czolgosz. Emma Goldman was an exception. Regarding the support of the Italian, Spanish and French anarchists, she noted:

“They wrote sympathetically of Leon, interpreting his act as a direct result of the increasing imperialism and reaction in this country. The Latin comrades were anxious to help with anything I might suggest, and it was a great comfort to know that at least some anarchists had preserved their judgment and courage in the madhouse of fury and cowardice. Unfortunately the foreign groups could not reach the American public.”

(see Emma Goldman, “Living My Life” New York: Knopf, 1934, p. 316. Also available here http://dwardmac.pitzer.edu/ANARCHIST_ARCHIVES/goldman/living/living1_24.html)

Arthur also wrote:

““The difference is that K. did not have an international support system of figures viewed in his society as religiously important and who view his actions as religiously correct.”

I am not aware of any “religiously important” American Muslims who view his actions as “religiously correct.” Can you provide any examples? I am interested.

arthur m. eckstein - 11/18/2009

In Muslim countries there is a great audience for decapitation of infidel videos. Mostly Russians from the Chechen War, but occasionally an American, most famously Danny Pearl.

It seems to me that no anarchist group would have dared engage in such behavior, nor would it have had an audience on the left which would have lapped up depictions of such behavior. The widespread circulation of depictions of such behavior would, on the contrary, have destroyed any popular support for the group, as people were repulsed.

By contrast, Muslim radicals successfully use such videos as *recruiting tools*. It's a profound difference.

William J. Stepp - 11/17/2009

Didn't Goldman (and Berkman) condemn McKinley's assassination at the time it happened, and dissociate themselves from Czolgosz? Writing in Liberty magazine, the individualist anarchist Benjamin Tucker condemned the assassination, but added that no one should have sympathy for McKinley. He was, after all, a state criminal.
Al Berkman's attempt to kill Henry Frick, a peaceful and productive capitalist and entrepreneur (who never put it for a bailout), counterposed with his initial attitude to McKinley's killer, shows the contradictions of left-wing "anarchism" (which really boils down to socialism, at least in its economics) compared to individualist anarchism.

Grant W Jones - 11/17/2009

Another difference is that the US military did not send Czolgosz through medical school. Nor did the army actively recruit anachists and then ignore their violent rhetoric in support of terrorism.

arthur m. eckstein - 11/17/2009

The difference is that K. did not have an international support system of figures viewed in his society as religiously important and who view his actions as religiously correct. Nidal Hasan does, and his religious supporters have not been shy in saying so.

That's a significant difference.

Michael Almer - 11/16/2009

The parallels between these two killers, their motives, and the media response to their crimes is quite interesting. Nice article.