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Fort Hood shooting splits America over Islamic terror motive

Army Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan is charged with 13 counts of murder in the Fort Hood shootings. Was it a 'killing spree' or 'terrorism,' and is the question more than political?

By Staff writer / November 21, 2009

Senators Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) hold a press conference about the Fort Hood shooting on Capitol Hill.

Alex Brandon/AP

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Atlanta

As US Army Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan faces his first court hearing in a San Antonio hospital, America is split over a fundamental question: Is Hasan an Islamic terrorist?

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Maj. Hasan, who allegedly killed 13 and wounded dozens during a Nov. 5 rampage at Fort Hood, Texas, is charged with 13 counts of murder, which could lead to a death penalty conviction at an Army court martial. Terror charges have not been filed.

Pending a series of legislative, Army, and Defense Department investigations into the rampage, the Obama administration has resisted the “terror” label. And one new poll shows slightly more Americans agreeing that the Fort Hood shooting was a “killing spree” rather than “an act of terrorism.”

But some US lawmakers see the terrorism analogy as fundamentally important to the inquiry -- not just into Hasan’s motivations, but to national security generally in the Fort Hood aftermath.

At Senate hearings this week, some witnesses testified that “political correctness” undermined efforts to pinpoint Hasan and neutralize him before the shooting.

“The difference between the White House’s determination and many lawmakers’ perception is that President Obama and his advisers do not want to consider the massacre as an act of terror ‘yet’ while Senator Joe Lieberman and other legislators in both houses do see it as an ideologically motivated terror action,” says Walid Phares, an expert on Islamic jihad at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a conservative think tank in Washington.

“It will be ‘terrorism’ per Obama's teams only if it is proven that there was a terror organization or a regime involved,” Mr. Phares adds. “In the eyes of lawmakers, it is about what inspires the action, not how it is conducted. Lieberman’s probe will eventually touch the ideological substance of the terror act.”

The search for Hasan’s inspiration is fodder for scoring political points as well as a genuine investigation.

“The [terror or not] argument sounds a lot like the argument taking place over hate crimes -- only, liberals, in general, seem to be in favor of hate crime legislation but against calling the Fort Hood shooting a terrorist act, with conservatives, in general, taking the opposite tack,” writes Nicole Stockdale, of the Dallas Morning News.

So far, two Senate investigations -- one led by Sens. Joe Lieberman and Susan Collins, the other by Sen. Carl Levin -- have said their purpose is not to undermine a series of internal investigations, including one by the White House, but to see how such tragedies can be prevented in the future, possibly through new regulations and guidelines for the Army and the Attorney General about how to define and deal with Islamic dissidents.

Three out of five witnesses testifying at a Senate Homeland Security Committee hearing this week called Hasan’s alleged rampage an act of terror, with the other two deferring to the judgment of prosecutors.