The Lessons of Fort Hood

By Megan McArdle

Apologies for the light blogging this weekend, despite much happening:  I've had the exciting double whammy of some sort of horrible respiratory infection which may or may not be swine flu, and what feels like it may be a cracked tooth.  As you can imagine, I'm in a sunny mood today.

While I was zonked out on Nyquil, I see I've taken a lot of heat for saying that there was no political lesson to be learned from the Fort Hood shootings.  Our own Jeffrey Goldberg says:

Megan McArdle writes that "there is absolutely no political lesson to be learned from this." James Fallows says: "The shootings never mean anything. Forty years later, what did the Charles Whitman massacre 'mean'? A decade later, do we 'know' anything about Columbine?"  And the Atlantic Wire has already investigated the motivation for the shooting, and released its preliminary findings. Of Nidal Malik Hasan, the Wire states: "A 39-year-old Army psychiatrist, he appears to have not been motivated by his Muslim religion, his Palestinian heritage (he is American by nationality), or any related political causes."

It seems, though, that when an American military officer who is a practicing Muslim allegedly shoots forty of his fellow soldiers who are about to deploy to the two wars the United States is currently fighting in Muslim countries, some broader meaning might, over time, be discerned, especially if the officer did, in fact, yell "Allahu Akbar" while murdering his fellow soldiers, as some soldiers say he did. This is the second time this year American soldiers on American soil have been gunned down by a Muslim who was reportedly unhappy with America's wars in the Middle East (the first took place in Arkansas, to modest levels of notice). And, of course, this would not be the first instance of an American Muslim soldier killing fellow soldiers over his disagreements with American foreign policy; in 2003, Army Sgt. Hasan Akbar killed two officers and wounded fourteen others when he rolled a grenade into a tent in a homicidal protest against American policy.
 
I am not arguing, of course, that American Muslims, as a whole, are violently unhappy with America (I've argued the opposite, in fact). But I do think 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

I'm sorry if I seemed to be denying that Hasan may have thought of this as a political act.  I thought that when I said

This guy was some form of lunatic or psychopath, and it seems pretty clear to me at this point that he was inspired by terrorists.  But there's no evidence that he was a terrorist--that is, that he was hooked into some organized network.  Lots of people do terrible things in the name of their religion--just ask George Tiller.  Their acts are, as the Catholic Church says, "sins that cry out to heaven for vengeance".  But they are no more indictments of a community than the acts of that Korean kid who went crazy at Virginia Tech.

I made it clear that I believed Hasan was trying to follow in the footsteps of Al Qaeda, et al--either because he was crazy, or because he was a deeply evil human being with no regard for the lives of others.  Even a few hours after the shooting, what we knew of him made it likely that this was somehow connected to his religion, and the war.

So why did I say that there were no political lessons to be learned from this?  Because it wasn't new information that there are Muslims in the world who object to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and would like to kill a bunch of Americans.  It was always possible that one of them, somewhere, was going to find their way to somewhere where they could do damage.  I can think of half a dozen easy ways to kill a significant number of people without getting caught, if I wanted to.  So could most of you.  The terrorist's job is made harder by wanting a certain sort of spectacular crime, not merely a death toll. But not much harder.

As of last week, what information did we have that would lead to any useful political response?  Were we going to start kicking Muslims out of the government and the armed forces?  That's unconstitutional, would brutally wrong the overwhelming majority of the Muslim community that is not involved in terrorism, and would deprive us of a valuable source of translators and other advisers to our military and intelligence efforts.  We know that some number of Muslims living in this country hate our government and want to act against it.  We also know (by the rarity of attacks, if nothing else) that this number is small, and any loose networks are poorly organized and largely ineffective.  Given this, there's not very much you can do with this information, other than what we're already doing, which is have the FBI try to track down terrorist plots.  Something that they seem to be doing very well when the attacker is not a lone gunman with no need for a support team.  This particular attack would have been very hard to stop for anyone, without doing terrible, terrible things to our Muslim citizens.

And if you think that's okay, I invite you to consider whether you would be all right with similar incursions into evangelical churches every time an abortion clinic or doctor gets attacked.  After all, the pro-life community does produce these wackos, and its radical fringe may even shelter them.  Why shouldn't every Southern Baptist get a little extra scrutiny?

Obviously, gun control is a non-issue, since military bases are actually very well locked down, and also, no one was going to prevent a military officer from getting his hands on guns.  You could call this a failure of the intelligence community, but there was no evidence that he was in touch with any terrorist network, and the attack was not the sort of thing that would have required any outside assistance.

That said, I have since changed my mind.  That's because there's growing evidence that the army and the CIA knew he was a crazy fanatic who wanted to get in touch with Al Qaeda.  It sort of seems like someone could have done something about that.

Maybe they were slow-playing him, trying to get evidence on bigger fish.  Maybe.  But I'm more inclined to believe that they failed to communicate with each other, and in the case of the army, failed to do the obvious thing and open an investigation into whether this fellow should be separated from the army, and maybe watched pretty carefully.  Being a Muslim is not grounds for investigation.  Being a Muslim who attends a radical mosque, issues lectures on jihad, and attempts to contact Al Qaeda is definitely grounds for suspicion, and I'm sure even CAIR would admit as much.

I don't know what happened here yet, and maybe it's not as bad as it sounds.  But I'd certainly like to know how this slipped through the cracks, who is being held responsible, and what is being done to make these sorts of errors less likely in the future.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2009/11/the-lessons-of-fort-hood/29827/