Not Every Tragedy Is Terrorism

Last week, U.S. Army Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan allegedly went on a shooting rampage at Fort Hood, Texas, the largest military installation in the United States, killing 13 people and wounding 29. Because he is Muslim, it didn’t take long for the "terrorism" flag to be run up the pole, especially since Hasan reportedly shouted out Allahu Akbar (Arabic for "God is great") during the shooting. According to Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, also chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, "There are very, very strong warning signs here that Dr. Hasan had become an Islamist extremist and, therefore, that this was a terrorist act." Lieberman also couldn’t resist resurrecting 9/11: "If that [Hasan was an Islamist extremist] is true, the murder of these 13 people was a terrorist act, and, in fact, it was the most-destructive terrorist act to be committed on American soil since 9/11." Finally, Hasan is linked to the same mosque in Falls Church, Va., that two of the 9/11 hijackers attended and where a radical imam, Anwar Aulaqi, preached.

The massacre at Fort Hood is certainly a tragedy, but we need to keep it in perspective. Not every act of violence perpetuated by someone of Muslim heritage is terrorism. There is no one universally accepted definition of terrorism, but the Department of Defense defines it as "the calculated use of unlawful violence or threat of unlawful violence to inculcate fear; intended to coerce or to intimidate governments or societies in the pursuit of goals that are generally political, religious, or ideological." According to the FBI, terrorism is "the unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives." And per U.S. Code Section 2331:

"(5) the term ‘domestic terrorism’ means activities that –
(A) involve acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any State;
(B) appear to be intended –
(i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population;
(ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or
(iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping; and
(C) occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States."

Is there some evidence that Hasan might be considered a terrorist? Yes. Some. But shouting Allahu Akbar and attending the same mosque as two of the 9/11 hijackers is more circumstantial evidence than hard proof. Indeed, the Dar al-Hijrah Islamic Center is one of the largest on the East Coast, with thousands of worshippers who do not espouse Islamic extremism. Moreover, it’s important to understand that bin Laden et al. play to the sympathies of Muslims. For example, one of the grievances cited by bin Laden has been U.S. support for authoritarian regimes in Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Many Muslims – including American Muslims who fled those very regimes for a better life for themselves and their children in America – actually share that grievance. But that doesn’t make them extremists, radicals, or terrorists.

The best evidence against Hasan is that a classmate at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, Dr. Val Finnell, said Hasan gave a presentation justifying suicide bombing and told classmates that Islamic law trumped the U.S. Constitution. And an examination of Hasan’s computer found he visited Web sites promoting radical Islamic views, but investigators did not find any e-mail communications with outside facilitators or known terrorists. Apparently, Hasan exchanged e-mail with the previously mentioned radical imam Anwar Aulaqi (who now calls Hasan a hero), but investigators say it was not threatening and, in fact, consistent with Hasan’s responsibility as a counselor. While not necessarily flimsy, the evidence of Hasan’s ties to terrorists is thin.

For now, the shootings at Fort Hood most resemble the 1999 Columbine High School and 2007 Virginia Tech shootings, both of which were tragedies but not acts of terrorism. And like Columbine and Virginia Tech – at least in hindsight, which is always perfect – there appear to have been many warning signs that Hasan was a risk. For instance, Hasan was apparently not shy about voicing his opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, was distressed about being deployed to Afghanistan, and sought a discharge from the Army. According to a former boss, Hasan, a psychiatrist, was a counselor who needed counseling.

What Fort Hood doesn’t have in common with Columbine and Virginia Tech is that the alleged perpetrator is still alive. As this is written, he is in critical but stable condition – and able to talk – at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas. So Hasan will likely stand trial, probably in a military court. In fact, Hasan’s family has already retained a lawyer. So instead of creating unnecessary hysteria by trying to turn this into a tragedy of 9/11 proportions, we need to let due process run its proper course.

Author: Charles V. Peña

Charles V. Peña is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute, a senior fellow with the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, a former senior fellow with the George Washington University Homeland Security
Policy Institute
, an adviser to the Straus Military Reform Project, and an analyst for MSNBC television. Peña is the co-author of Exiting Iraq: Why the U.S. Must End the Military Occupation and Renew the War Against al-Qaeda and author of Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism.