There are sketchy reports that Maj. Nidal Hasan tried to contact "people associated with Al Qaeda," and some are calling Ft. Hood "the largest single terror act in America since 9/11" — something both terrorists and wingnuts wish were true.
Fanaticism makes strange bedfellows, and the push to link up Hasan to a wider terrorist plot has united Sen. Joe Leiberman and radical Yemeni cleric Sheikh Anwar Al-Awlaki in common cause. Wingnuts and neocons want Hasan to be a Muslim terrorist because it confirms their worldview that Muslim terrorists lurk in every shadow and helps them scare the shit out people. Muslim terrorists want Hasan to be a Muslim terrorist because it satisfies their desire to claim credit for the murders of Americans and helps them scare the shit out of people. Everybody wins.
The question of whether Hasan qualifies as a bona fide Muslim terrorist seems to be academic, and can serve as handy ideological litmus test. He clearly was motivated in part by extremist religious views, and clearly killed a lot of people. For the New Republic's Jason Zengerle, that alone is enough to call him a terrorist. But "Islamic terrorism" has a political and cultural meaning that extends beyond merely acts of violence by people who believe a certain subset of crazy religious teachings—it means jihad, Al Qaeda, spectacular violence, and a global network of people who are acting in concert to kill us all and establish an emirate. Dick Cheney is not worried about American civilization being destroyed 13 soldiers at a time by single men armed with pistols, and "the largest single terror act in America since 9/11"—which is how Fox News contributor Walid Phares describes the Ft. Hood shootings—is a label that's tailored to call up something in our lizard brains that goes far beyond lone wolves. It's about the "existential threat" we are under. No matter how extremist his views or how despicable the man, no one can argue that Maj. Hasan is an existential threat to the republic.
So the question is: How do we turn him into one, so that this horror will not pass without being taken advantage of politically? That requires making him part of, and representative of, a larger and well-known enemy for which there exists more than sufficient reserves of justified hatred and fear—Al Qaeda. Enter ABC News' Brian Ross, the notoriously unreliable investigative reporter who came out with a blockbuster this morning: Unnamed intelligence officials tell Ross that unnamed American intelligence agencies learned months ago that Hasan had attempted to make contact with "people associated with Al Qaeda" who were under U.S. surveillance. The report is a grab-bag of red flags. Ross mentions that officials are trying to find out if Hasan ever communicated with Anwar Al-Awlaki, the former imam of a mosque that Hasan attended on Falls Church, Va., who later fled to Yemen and supports violent jihad. But it's unclear from Ross' report whether Al-Awlaki is one of the "people associated with Al Qaeda" that Hasan is said to have attempted to contact, or if there are others. Within the story itself, what begins as an attempt to contact "people associated with Al Qaida"—with no explanation as to why he was allegedly trying to contact these people—rapidly becomes "Hasan's attempt to reach out to al Qaeda." These are vastly different things, and Ross' casual conflation of them, with no evidence, is an indicator that something is cooked in the story.
It wouldn't be the first time: Ross famously, and breathlessly, reported in the wake of the 2001 anthrax attacks that U.S. intelligence sources had specific and detailed evidence linking Iraq to the type of anthrax used. It was complete and utter bullshit, and it served to heighten the atmosphere of panic and fear in the days immediately following the attacks and to link them to a convenient enemy. So we take his latest entry in the post-massacre-blockbuster-terrorism-story sweepstakes with a grain of salt.
Even before Ross' report, the attempts to render Hasan's killings more politically effective for the purposes of changing U.S. policy toward Islamic radicalism had begun. Sen. Joe Lieberman called on Sunday for a congressional investigation into Hasan's background—which we think is a great idea—and mimed Phares' bumper sticker, calling it it "the most-destructive terrorist act to be committed on American soil since 9/11." The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg charitably wrote today, under the headline, "When Muslims Commit Violence," that not all Muslims are "violently unhappy with America." Whew! Good to know. Unfortunately, Goldberg continues, "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." The "larger meaning" here being what? That "when Muslims commit violence" we should have a different reaction, and different policy reforms designed to prevent a recurrence, than when Christians or Jews or anarchist nutjobs or right-wing nutjobs commit violence? The problem, Goldberg writes, is that since "elite opinion makers do not, as a rule, try to protect Christians and Christian belief from investigation and criticism," they should apply the same standard to Muslim beliefs. Because clearly, Islamic theology has gotten a pass from journalistic and cultural establishment over the last eight years, and it's about time somebody blew the lid off the whole thing. Did you know that some of them agree with suicide bombing?
Goldberg and Zengerle both make the point that the left referred to Scott Roeder as a terrorist after he murdered Dr. George Tiller. Parity, one imagines, dictates that the same term apply to Hasan. One noteworthy distinction, though, is that Roeder fits precisely into what most people generally think of when they talk about right-wing terrorists. He worked closely with other people who sought the deaths of abortion providers. He talked about it all the time. He was an active member of an organized movement. Hasan's case is noteworthy because of the extent to which it is not like the Al Qaeda threat we've come to know. That doesn't mean there's nothing to be learned from it, or even that we shouldn't try to change the way we do things to try to prevent it from happening again. What it does mean is that it's not like the Al Qaeda threat that we've come to know, and is substantively different from the Muslim terrorism, and fear thereof, that has hijacked our national psyche for nearly a decade. As Zengerle quite reasonably acknowledges, magnetometers at airports won't prevent it from happening again, nor will invading Iran, nor will another PATRIOT Act.
What Goldberg, Ross (or his sources), Lieberman, et. al. are trying to do is establish an equivalence between "Muslim person who kills people" and "global conspiracy of Muslims who kill people," so that they can advance a political agenda that involves deploying U.S. resources in a particular way to defeat a particular threat.
The funny thing is, the terrorists agree with them. Hasan's radical former imam, Anwar al Awlaki, wrote on his web site that "Nidal Hasan is a hero" who performed "an Islamic duty." It's precisely the same ideological jump: Hasan didn't act alone, he is part of a broader struggle by religious fanatics. And it's made for the same reason: to advance a political agenda. The neocons want to keep pressure on the idea that there is a vast army of scary Muslims always on the verge of killing us. And so do the terrorists.