Fort Hood Investigation: Link between Nidal Hasan and imam?

Maj. Nidal M. Hasan
Maj. Nidal M. Hasan
  Enlarge Photo    
Spencer Hsu
Washington Post staff writer
Monday, November 9, 2009; 1:00 PM

Federal investigators are examining possible links between Fort Hood shooting suspect Maj. Nidal M. Hasan and an American-born imam who U.S. authorities say has become a supporter and leading promoter of al-Qaeda since leaving a Northern Virginia mosque, officials said.

Washington Post staff writer Spencer Hsu was online Monday, Nov. 9, at 1 p.m. ET to discuss the story and the latest news concerning the shootings at Fort Hood and alleged gunman Hasan.


Spencer Hsu: Hello Spencer Hsu here to discuss today's story about Fort Hood and the investigation into possible connections between shooting suspect Maj. Nidal Hasan and an former Northern Virginia imam whom U.S. authorities have said is a promoter of al Qaeda.

Look forward to your questions.

_______________________ Authorities scrutinize links between Fort Hood suspect, imam said to back al-Qaeda (Post, Nov. 9)


Rochester, N.Y.: It seems like the Washington Post, NY Times, and other are trying to highlight every other cause except his religion. At first the media reports said this was caused by his exposure to the war overseas but it became quickly apparent he never went overseas. Then he snapped because he heard war stories.

Will we see an honest examination of Islam in your paper? Is there any retrospective in your newsroom about the climate of political correctness that the media has helped create and strengthen?

I find it ironic the media is slamming the military since if they fired this guy the same media would be calling the military a bastion of anti-Muslim bigotry.

Spencer Hsu: Thanks Rochester. I don't think there is any effort to play down the fact of the suspect's religion, nor frankly do I think that his religion is a secret to anyone following this story. I think what you may be tapping into is the very difficult question facing everyone in determining exactly what motivated Hasan, in an effort to determine accountability and also to prevent future incidents. Your question cuts to the heart of what investigators are looking at. I don't know that it is in the interest of authorities to put a religion on trial, for example, for the actions of a very small percentage of bad actors, even assuming your assumption is correct. Another concern is that an overbroad diagnosis of what caused these shootings may wind up worsening the problem, alienating the world's Muslims while the U.S. is attempting to advance its policy aims with them.


Washington, D.C.: Why are people entering the military for money to pay for college when they know they are not cut out for that background, and cannot mentally endure the environment? Why does the Army just recruit any old body to join? With all of the history the country has on being prejudiced against blacks for little things like entering a restaurant, club or using the bathrooms, why aren't we exercising more prejudice with the dangers facing this country? Why is it all a sudden right to overlook everything and take for granted everyone is sooooo GOOD and harmless now? It never was that way here before. Never. ever. So why now?

Spencer Hsu: Hm, interesting question. If I understand, you're asking, are certain groups naive perhaps to join the military because they won't fit in. I think this line of thinking may fall into two traps. It assumes that a given situation or institution, in this case the military, has a certain attitude, and it also assumes that the institution won't change, possibly because of the actions of those who join. The question raises larger issue of the benefits of integration and diversity. In large parts of our society and our culture, we have embraced diversity, with our nation's motto, one out of many, E Pluribus Unum. Army Chief of Staff. Gen. George Casey made this point yesterday. "Our diversity, not only in our Army, but in our country, is a strength. And as horrific as this tragedy was, if our diversity becomes a casualty, I think that's worse," Casey said. Having said that, obviously individuals need to determine if they are willing to pay the price for their beliefs or their actions, and if the benefit is worth any personal cost.


Laurel, Md.: It seems a bit premature to publicize a potential (not proven) connection between the controversial imam, al-Qaeda and Maj. Hasan? Isn't that inciting the very anti-Muslim rhetoric that you claim the Post is trying to prevent?

Spencer Hsu: Thoughtful question. What is the threshold for publishing a line of investigation, if it may not pan out, especially if the hint of it could be controversial or inflammatory? I think one rationale for doing so could be concern by some people inside the government that there may be that a line of investigation that is not being pursued aggressively enough for whatever reason, perhaps to paper over past mistakes, or because it fits a political agenda. I'm not saying that is the case. Nor am I saying that it may be correct, there are often many interests at work. I'm saying there are different schools of thought oftentimes among investigators or parties, and competing interests who believe that the facts lie on their side and who believe a full airing before the public or the Congress will prove them right.


Alexandria, Va.: So far we have not seen any conclusive evidence to suggest he had any ties to terrorism. Do you think that if news outlets are downplaying his religion just a little (I'm not saying they are), it would be out of concern that citizens would leap to conclusions and believe that he is a Muslim who had a mental break, and not a man who had a mental break and happens to be a Muslim?

Spencer Hsu: Right. I mean, there are plenty of people who do bad things among all faiths. There are people, and branches of religions, and splinter groups who may do things that violate a society's general standards or even its laws; sometimes in the name of a religion, in good faith or not.


To Rochester, N.Y.: There was a very moving interview with a Muslim soldier either Thursday or Friday evening. The broader story was about what issues face Muslims serving in the U.S. Armed Forces.

This soldier -- who has been deployed twice to Iraq/Afghanistan -- made himself perfectly clear. He is a U.S. soldier trained to protect his country and fight our enemies. He has no problem firing on "other Muslims" who distort the Koran for violent purposes (like some Christians have also done with the Bible, my words, not his).

"We're better than that," he said.

Take the suspect's religion out of it and simply investigate his connections and his distorted view of Islam, if that's the case. But don't blame it on religion.

Spencer Hsu: Well said.

And there are provisions made for conscientious objectors, who may act out of faith or a belief in pacifism that independent of faith.


Spencer Hsu: As a nation of immigrants, the United States for a long time has had in its military immigrants and children of immigrants who went to fight against the countries of their ancestors. German-, Italian-, Japanese-Americans have all had this experience. Such issues pose different tests for different individuals, I wonder what views our audience has about that if they faced such a decision.


Atlanta, Ga.: I haven't read much about the harassment Maj. Hasan apparently suffered for being Muslim. My black grandfather served in WWII and described his experience as "humiliating" and "subhuman" and always noted that the German POWs were treated better than black soldiers. Given that, I can only imagine what it must be like to be in the military and look like the "enemy."

Spencer Hsu: And often the sacrifice of those who fight helps advance causes for others such as the integration of the services, civil rights, statehood and so on. It's a complex dynamic, serving one's nation.


Arlington, Va. S: Given that some reports say that Hasan stated "God is great" in Arabic before initiating the shooting, I've heard/read that many attribute religious motivations to the crime. I'm not saying that this is or isn't the case, but is that a fair conclusion based on that single piece of information? Don't many people, of different religious faiths, invoke the name of God when they believe they need additional strength? (soldiers in the field, pilots landing planes with failing engines, and even more mundane tasks such as playing in a football game, etc.)

Is there something special about the Muslim saying that gives it special weight as evidence of religious motivation?

Spencer Hsu: I'm not an expert, but I am told by Muslim clergy that your understanding is correct. Having said that, I wouldn't ignore the fact that people heard him invoke God, either. To me, one question is whether the shooter shot indiscriminately or perhaps may have "profiled" on his own to select targets. If this were a religiously motivated attack, would the assailant know or care if victims were of the same religion?


Flint, Mich.: The Washington Post (and NY times) refer to the shooter exclusively as "Maj. Hasan." Why never "Dr. Hasan"? Is he not a medical doctor?

Spencer Hsu: News organizations' "styles" often vary in the use of honorary titles. Some say Mr./Ms. other's don't. I wouldn't read anything into it other than that he is an Army officer alleged to have committed a crime on an Army base.


Centreville, Va.: Does anyone know why civilian police were involved in taking down the shooter? When I was in the Army (late 60's) MP's took care of all police work on post. Is this a special deal at Ft. Hood, or Army-wide now?

Spencer Hsu: My understanding is it was civilian contract police, and that such contracts are widespread. I'm sure our audience knows?


Houston, Tex.: His act, in and of itself, was a form of terrorism. However, it's doubtful that he was any part of an organized group that promoted his actions.

That being said, many questions asked here betray a barely concealed leap of thought from "He's a Muslim -- Oh my gosh -- he must be in league with al-Qaeda."

Do you think there is any chance that accurate reporting and analysis of this incident will do anything to overcome the tide of sloppy thinking that has overcome our national dialogue when it comes to Muslims and terrorism and the potential axis of both?

Spencer Hsu: Thanks for this question. Terrorism is loosely the use of violence or terror to advance a political aim. Individuals can do it. One example might be Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City federal building bombing in 1995, when it was ultimately determined that he and accomplice Terry Nichols acted independently of any groups, out of a hostility to government.

A question that counter-terrorism officials are increasingly looking at is, how does the United States respond if it begins to see individuals who are US citizens carry out isolated attacks, instead of organized cells who infiltrate from abroad, as in the 9/11 attacks.

One doesn't want to overstate this problem, but many thinkers, forensic psychologists and terrorism analysts and members of Congress are worried about it.

And again, this is something that other countries have experienced, whether it be with Red Brigades in Europe, or what have you. It's not limited to a religion, or religion in general.


Germantown, Md.: If Major Hasan is ruled to be competent to face trial, could he be facing a death sentence for treason?

Spencer Hsu: The more direct path to a death penalty may be capital murder.


Spencer Hsu: I wonder what our audience thinks about whether this is a case of terrorism, or an individual with emotional problems, and what should be done if it turns out to appear to be a combination of both.

I also wonder how worried readers are about these sort of incidents becoming more common, or if they believe it is isolated.

One other way to put it would be, does this affect your view or support of what the U.S. government is doing in Iraq and Afghanistan.


To Rochester, N.Y.: Secondary PTSD (or "vicarious trauma" or "compassion fatigue") is actually a well-known phenomenon in military psychiatry. That doesn't mean it was the sum total of what happened, but please know that this exists. These people listen to horror stories day in and day out for years and sometimes it seeps in deeper than they have realized.

Spencer Hsu: This is really interesting. We should learn more about this.


Bethesda, Md.: Was he wearing his army uniform or his Muslim garb when he shot those people?

Spencer Hsu: He was in uniform, as I understand it.

I want to go back to the question at the top from Washington, because I think I may have missed Washington's point.

You asked, "why aren't we exercising more prejudice with the dangers facing this country?" meaning, now that I think about it, shouldn't the military and national security interests be naturally cautious about the possibility of divided loyalties and screen members.

This of course is very important. It is one reason, in the broadest sense, why the Constitution requires the president be native-born. Government background investigations for security posts do look at ancestry, travel and ties (such as family) abroad, and during the Cold War most recently limits were in place on who could serve in agencies such as the CIA.

At the same time, in the last few years, intelligence agencies have slightly modified their requirements to tap language and cultural skills that more recent generations of immigrants may offer. But I did not want to overlook the point.

I'd like to see what the many military and national security experts in our audience think about this issue.


San Clemente, Calif.: It seems to me that in the Timothy McVeigh case we never learned anything about what books he was reading, who he admired, what church he was attending. It was just assumed that he cooked up the whole atrocity right in his own deranged little head.

Spencer Hsu: Well, there was a deep look in the militia movement, ties to the Christian identity community, ties to white separatists, etc. I think if one looks back, there was quite a lot of alarm about that, which turned out perhaps to be overstated. In turn of course, that push back came after concerns about government growing too large and powerful has been ascendant, to the point of caricature about fears of "black helicopters." It was a tense political environment, and some observers noted that the bombing may have affected the subsequent Congressional elections.


Kensington, Md.: Mr. Cho of Virginia Tech likened himself to Jesus before shooting up the place. Aside from the fact that this seals it that Christianity is a violent religion (being facetious), can we please realize that unstable people OFTEN gravitate toward religiosity? This is well-established in psychiatric literature. Notice this is far different than an organized Muslim attack on the military here at home.

Spencer Hsu: Interesting. And one point I've heard raised is, what if psychiatric problems predispose people to influence by religious extremists. What if the profile of homegrown attackers is exactly someone who may be unstable, and what if organized adversaries try to exploit that. What's the best response?


Washington, D.C.: I am worried about this happening again. I am someone who believes the sniper murders were loosely a case of terrorism. I think this major's murder spree was also terrorism, and I wonder how we can screen people out of the military whose first allegiance is not to their country.

Spencer Hsu: Interesting. And how much disruption and cost is it worth to go through, if it turns out the risks come from a tiny fraction of a fraction of 1 percent?


Spencer Hsu: Ok, thanks all for your interest and questions. Keep them coming next time.


Editor's Note: moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company