It is utterly unsurprising that most of the usual right-wing suspects declared Fort Hood shooter Nidal Malik Hasan a terrorist as soon as they heard his name was Nidal Malik Hasan. That, however, doesn’t mean that there aren’t difficult questions to ask in regard to Hasan’s motivations. As I see it, there are two main ones: How much did Hasan’s faith play into his decision to commit mass murder? And if the answer to that question is “a lot” does that necessarily make the shooting a terrorist act?
Jeffrey Goldberg writes that “Elite makers of opinion in this country try very hard to ignore the larger meaning of violent acts when they happen to be perpetrated by Muslims,” and suggests this “simple test“:
If Nidal Malik Hasan had been a devout Christian with pronounced anti-abortion views, and had he attacked, say, a Planned Parenthood office, would his religion have been considered relevant as we tried to understand the motivation and meaning of the attack? Of course. Elite opinion makers do not, as a rule, try to protect Christians and Christian belief from investigation and criticism. Quite the opposite. It would be useful to apply the same standards of inquiry and criticism to all religions.
The obvious example here is the assassination of abortion doctor George Tiller by anti-choice activist Scott Roeder. Roeder had a long association with extremist anti-abortion groups, had been caught with bomb-making materials before, and had threatened violence against abortion providers before.
I think relevant to point out that acts of murder by devout Christians do not, as a rule, result in reprisals and discrimination against American Christians. To the extent that some opinion makers were trying to “protect” anyone, I think they are (rightfully) simply trying to avoid jumping to conclusions and lower the temperature on a situation that could have real consequences for American Muslims. I’d also suggest that an aversion to drawing immediate conclusions about Muslims and violence is appropriate, given the very recent American history of using wild claims about Muslims and violence to generate public support for enormously stupid invasions and occupations of Muslim countries. That said, obviously we shouldn’t avoid recognizing the evidence of religious radicalization when it’s there.
As for the question of whether the Ft. Hood shooting qualifies as an act of terrorism, as I noted Friday, despite what Daniel Pipes and Michelle Malkin would have us believe, the definition of terrorism is not “any violence by any Muslim anywhere, at any time, for any reason.” It’s gotten somewhat lost in the years since 9/11, but terrorism actually does have a fairly broadly accepted meaning, “the use of force or the threat of force against non-combatants to achieve a political goal.” Did Hasan have a political goal, as Scott Roeder clearly did? Did Hasan intend his violence to frighten Americans away from enlisting in the military? Did he intend to cause Americans to withdraw their support for U.S. interventions in the Middle East (even more than they already have done)? As James Joyner writes “If he’s just an angry Muslim who went nuts and started shooting people, he’s a psychopath and a killer but not a terrorist.” On the other hand, if it’s determined that Hasan did hope to achieve some broader political goal through his violence, then it should be considered terrorism.