By Jim Hoagland
Sunday, November 15, 2009
America's vast spaces inspire such fear and uncertainty for the country's inhabitants that at times they snap, reach for an ever-present firearm and blaze away at their fellow citizens. This narrative comes from a European friend to explain the Fort Hood massacre, as well as those that preceded it and those yet to come.
Expansive explanations flourish in this morbid interim period, when we know what happened but not exactly why or how. Working backward, we impose our deepest fears, resentments and expectations on a pattern that is suddenly astonishingly clear. Of course, we exclaim, as we read the comments that reporters gathered from former neighbors, associates and distant nephews who provide the one key fact that explains it all, even if that fact was until now not key enough to pass on to their bosses, wives or golfing partners.
Our minds want desperately for "it" not to have happened. So we focus first on how the mass murder should have been prevented. Why did the FBI not shadow, interrogate and otherwise harass the prime suspect on the basis of the (very little) information that is now blindingly pertinent?
In the next breath we add that those who resemble the suspect in ethnicity or religion must not be profiled or visited with new hatreds or retaliation such as FBI shadowing. We must confine the meaning of this tragedy to this one case, as the law and correct manners require. We repeat reflexively that it is not about anybody's religion.
Which is one way for reporters and citizens alike to rush past the obvious -- to avoid saying that the deaths by gunfire of 12 active-duty soldiers and one civilian at Fort Hood are terrorist acts that, at least indirectly, raise important questions about Islam and U.S. wars abroad today.
Terrorists intend to punish, intimidate and force society to change, whether they operate as networks of multiple suicide bombers (the atrocity of choice in the Middle East and South Asia) or as lone gunmen (à la Americaine, as it were). Their grievances and goals are much larger than their available targets. The degree of calculation and coordination -- the presumed measures of both terrorism and the assassin's sanity -- is less important than the effect of the acts.
And we uneasily rush past the question reportedly raised by Maj. Nidal M. Hasan, who has been charged with the Fort Hood killings, about the relationship of the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to his religion, Islam. Hasan told superiors that the Army should realize that a good Muslim would not kill other Muslims for U.S. goals. He demanded reflection, explanations and a pass from being sent to Afghanistan. He got none of the three.
But the war in Afghanistan is inescapably about the struggle within Islam over that religion's direction. The radical version of al-Qaeda, the Taliban and their associates in jihad -- and probably at some point of Hasan -- preaches that it is a good Muslim's duty to kill infidels and Muslims who stray from the fundamentalist path. That is why they are in Afghanistan.
For them, Afghanistan is not about nation-building, counterinsurgency, troop levels or other topics that have dominated the 20 hours of ordeal-by-review that President Obama has put himself and his aides through in their increasingly bitter internal debate over U.S. goals and methods.
One idea that has taken root in the review is that Taliban forces can be "politicized" through de facto local truces and amnesty, and thus split off from al-Qaeda and its jihadist ideology. But this either ignores or discounts the identical religious doctrine of the two groups on what a good Muslim is and does.
Like the George W. Bush administration, this White House is uneasy in describing or planning the war in religious terms. For moral and tactical reasons, U.S. political and military leaders resist even looking at that notion. So the Army had no ready answers for Hasan's initial challenge about his faith and his subsequent hostile attacks on the American military presence in Islamic nations.
The responsibility for Hasan's acts lies solely with himself and no one else. But initially, he was raising the right question. He was asking the national command to look at this war from the point of view of the Muslims who are both its chief protagonists and its chief victims. Until this happens, we will have a hard time figuring out why we are in Afghanistan and how we get out.