In the wake of what everyone agrees was a horrible tragedy at Fort Hood, there has been sort of a battle of interpretation going on between those who were quick to label it an act of terrorism because the perpetrator is a Muslim and those who urged caution, seeing it as a horrific act of workplace violence which may or may not have a religious or terroristic motivation. The juxtaposition of the treatment of the Fort Hood story, in which the perpetrator had an Arabic name, and the Orlando office shooting, in which the perpetrator did not stand out ethnically or religiously, was striking. We are more than OK assuming the Orlando shooter was just a guy who snapped in hard times, but we were less willing to believe that a Muslim American could “snap” without any additional religious or political motivation. In particular, I would recommend this piece by Eboo Patel, a Muslim American active in interfaith causes. I agree with Patel’s idea that murder is not a value in any major religion. Murderers are not Muslims or Christians, they are murderers.
However, now that more information is coming to light, the “terrorism” debate is heating up. It is being reported that Hasan had tried to contact Al Qaeda and the CIA may have known about this months ago, which raises some serious questions about whether or not they reported this info to the military, and what actions could have been taken to prevent this tragedy. Though I have seen at least one blogger at The New Republic call the reporter who broke the Al Qaeda story’s credibility into question, so I’m not quite ready to accept this as total fact yet. There was much speculation and misinformation when the story initially broke, and the speculation and misinformation continues in the aftermath. There is, however, some indication that Hasan was affiliated with more radical views of Islam.
Still, even if Hasan were a religious extremist, is the Fort Hood Massacre terrorism?
As a political science major in college, I once had a class whose final exam consisted of one writing prompt: Solve the problem of radical Islamic terror. I don’t recall how I answered that seemingly impossible question, though I did make an A in the class, but I do recall that we had a pretty good working definition of terrorism. Terrorism is an act of violence intended to intimidate or incite fear in a specific audience for a specific goal. It’s often perpetrated by people affiliated with groups that have clear agendas. Blowing up US Embassies abroad, for example, has Americans as its audience, and intends to incite a fear which would discourage a US presence in those places.
Even if Hasan turns out to be a religious radical, what was his goal, his message, and his audience in the shooting? Now that he is apparently awake and communicative, we may find out soon. In the meantime, I’m not seeing a clear message or even audience in a man who knew perhaps too much about the mental effects of war and who was about to be sent to a place that had destroyed the minds of his patients shooting at a military clinic on his own military base. So while this was an act of heinous, brutal violence, it seems to me to have more in common with the Orlando office shooting than say the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole. Only more facts, most likely from Hasan himself, will prove me wrong.
Until we have those facts, I think it wise to not label this an act of terrorism or attempt to blame such violence on the fact of the shooter’s adherence to Islam. Some are already acting in ways that are foolish and rash, which not only does a disservice to the thousands of Muslims serving honorably in our armed forces (especially as we are desperate for Arabic speakers and other experts in our current wars) and the millions of American Muslims who love their country as much as any Christian or Jew, but also inflames the very anti-American sentiment in those who see our “War on Terror” as a war on Islam and perpetrate real acts of terrorism. In on particularly disgusting stroke, the Christian group the American Family Association has published an article suggesting that Muslims should be barred from military service. Slightly less disgusting is Sen. Joe “LOOK AT ME” Lieberman’s overreactions. I will close with what Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Casey has said:
We have to be careful, because we can’t jump to conclusions now based on little snippets of information that have come out…As great a tragedy as this was, it would be a shame if our diversity became a casualty as well.
UPDATED TO INCLUDE:
John B. Judis at the New Republic defined terrorism more succinctly than I did:
I associate terrorism generally with a political movement that has certain objectives that it believes it cannot accomplish either through ordinary politics or conventional military engagement, but only – given the asymmetry of force — through solitary acts that by sowing fear and creating discord, force the oppressor to cede power or to cease whatever activity the movement objects to – from Czarist rule to performing abortions in a clinic.
UTI The Second: Glenn Greenwald points out that usually what we consider terrorism targets non-combatant citizens, not military personnel. Can an attack on a military base ever be considered terrorism? This would make my U.S.S. Cole example a bad one.