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

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

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.”

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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.

“We’ve got him on murder, that’s good enough,” Brian Jenkins, a RAND Corp. terrorism expert and former US Army Special Forces officer, told the Senate Homeland Security Committee on Thursday.

But it’s not a completely partisan divide: "There are some who are reluctant to call it terrorism but there is significant evidence that it is,” said Sen. Levin, a Democrat. “I'm not at all uneasy saying it sure looks like that.”

Some commentators argue that in this case reluctance by the administration to call Hasan a terrorist is wise.

“Given what looks like the security authorities’ wretched mishandling of the Hasan case -- the guy appears to have done everything but paste an ‘Osama bin Laden Rocks’ bumper sticker on his car -- there’s every reason for the administration and the FBI to want to put off a legislative reckoning for as long as possible,” columnist Tim Rutten writes in the Los Angeles Times Saturday. “ ‘We want to guarantee everyone a fair trial’ is always good cover. But in this case, it has the additional virtue of being true.”

There’s strong evidence on both sides of the debate -- and growing worries that Hasan’s ultimate motive may never be known.

Hasan’s frequent contacts with US-born Al Qaeda recruiter Anwar Al-Awlaki and Hasan’s “Soldier of Allah” business cards seem to point to a political motivation that would fall into the terror definition.

At the same time, others have found evidence that his psychological state, not political leanings, were the primary reason for the attack. National Public Radio’s Daniel Zwerdling found an Army memo that showed Hasan, according to Mr. Zwerdling's report, “proselytized patients … mishandled a homicidal patient [allowing] her to escape from the emergency room … and when he was supposed to be on call for emergencies, he didn’t even answer the phone.”

Americans are split on the question. A new Fox News poll has 49 percent calling it a “killing spree” and 44 percent calling it “an act of terrorism.” Sixty-three percent of Democrats call it a “killing spree” while 58 percent of Republicans call it “an act of terrorism,” according to the poll.

Predictably, online comments put the debate in its sharpest perspective.

Commenting on a Dallas Morning News blog whether the rampage was terrorism, “Jen” writes, “Those who are eager to label this an act of terrorism seem to be motivated out of a desire to generalize Hasan’s actions and (possible) motivation to all Muslims in the US or armed forces.”

Commenter Michael McCullough sees it from the other side of the fence.

“Those who are eager to label this a random act of violence seem not to want to admit that the worst terrorist act on US soil since 9/11 happened under Obama's watch and could have been stopped if the government were not obsessed with political correctness,” he writes.

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