We're all born late. We're born into history that is well under way. We're born into cultures, nations and languages we didn't choose. We're born with brain chemicals and genetic predispositions that we can't control. We're thrust into social conditions we detest. Often, we react in ways we regret even as we're doing them.
But unlike animals, people have a drive to seek coherence and meaning. We have a need to tell ourselves stories that explain it all. We use these stories to supply the metaphysics, without which life seems pointless and empty.
Among all the things we don't control, we do have some control over our stories. We have a conscious say in selecting the narrative we will use to make sense of the world. Individual responsibility is contained in the act of selecting and constantly revising that master narrative.
The stories we select help us to interpret the world. They lead us to see certain things as sacred and others as disgusting. They are the frameworks that shape our desires and goals. So while story selection may seem vague and intellectual, the most important power we have is to help select the lens through which we see reality.
Most people select stories that lead to cooperation and goodness. But in recent decades, a malevolent narrative emerged on the fringes of the Muslim world.
It sees human history as a war between Islam on the one side and Christianity and Judaism on the other. They don't see others as fully human. They come to believe others can be blamelessly murdered and that it is admirable to do so.
This narrative is embraced by a minority. But it has caused incredible suffering in the Muslim world, Israel, the United States and elsewhere. With suicide bombings and terrorist acts, adherents to this narrative have made themselves central to global politics. They are the ones who go into crowded rooms, shout "Allahu Akbar," or "God is great," and then start murdering.
When Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan did that in Fort Hood last week, many had an understandable and admirable reaction. They didn't want the horror to become a pretext for anti-Muslim bigotry.
So the coverage took on a certain cast. The possibility of Islamic extremism was played down. This was an isolated personal breakdown, not an ideological assault, many people emphasized.
Hasan was portrayed as a disturbed individual under a lot of stress. We learned about pre-traumatic stress syndrome, and secondary stress disorder, which one gets from hearing about other people's stress. We heard the theory (unlikely in retrospect) that Hasan was so traumatized by the thought of going into a combat zone that he decided to create one of his own.
A shroud of political correctness settled over the conversation. He was portrayed as a poor soul pushed over the edge by prejudice and unhappiness. Hasan was a loner who had trouble finding a wife and socializing with his neighbors.
This response was understandable. It's important to tamp down vengeful hatreds in moments of passion. But it also was patronizing. Public commentators assumed the air of kindergarten teachers who had to protect children from thinking intolerant thoughts. Without policing, the assumption seemed to be, Middle America would go off on a racist rampage.
Worse, it absolved Hasan, before the evidence was in, of responsibility. He didn't have the choice to be lonely or unhappy. But he did have a choice over what story to build of those circumstances. And evidence is mounting to suggest he chose the extremist war on Islam narrative that so often leads to murderous results.
The conversation in the first few days ignored that the war narrative of the struggle against Islam is the central feature of U.S. foreign policy. It ignored that this can be embraced by a self-radicalizing individual in the United States as much as by groups in Tehran, Gaza or Kandahar.
It denied, before the evidence was in, the possibility of evil.
It sought to reduce a heinous act to social maladjustment. It wasn't the reaction of a morally or politically serious nation.
NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE