03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Terrorism, Religious Extremism, and the Fort Hood Massacre

Given how little we know, it is ridiculous, as Joe Lieberman did, to call the Fort Hood massacre a "terrorist attack." (It seems to have been an act of violence, not terror, as the point was not to terrorize, or necessarily to act to effect political change, which suggests the creation of abject fear beyond the act itself. Still, it's clear we don"t really know yet what it was. At the very least, it is premature, and somewhat irresponsible, given how freely the word is thrown around post-9/11, to call it terrorism.) On the flip side, it is ridiculous to claim, as some have (such as James Fallows), that the attack was essentially meaningless.

Without rushing to prejudicial conclusions, after all, we do need to consider the possibility that Nidal Malik Hasan's Muslim faith played a major role, if not necessarily the dominant one, in what happened.

Here's Andrew Sullivan, responding to Jeffrey Goldberg, with a very sensible take:

I did not leap to that conclusion in this case as the primary reason for the attack because we didn't fully know the entire picture -- and still don't. But as the pieces fall into place, it seems increasingly clear that Nidal Hasan's faith -- and the conflicts it presented in the context of the war on Islamist terror -- was absolutely relevant in this horrifying massacre of servicemembers. It may well have been combined with individual stress, exposure to others with PTSD, fear of deployment, psychological disturbance, etc. But that it was a critical factor seems to me important to note.

But every case is unique.

If the man is not part of any wider conspiracy or terror group, it is silly to treat him the way we would a Qaeda cell, for example, as Lieberman seems to want to do. And the random murder spree was not designed to wound the US militarily in any strategic way. But religion is poisonous when it fuses with politics and deploys violence to control or punish others -- and Hasan's increasingly Wahabbist version of Islam is about as crude a conflation of religion, certainty and violence as one can imagine.

This applies to the extremes of Christianity and Judaism as well, of course. I do not think you can understand the assassination of abortion doctor George Tiller without grasping the religious motivation of his killer, just as I think a brutal gay-bashing by a thug with Leviticus tattooed on his arm gives you a good idea of the religious motivation for the beat-down. Ditto, I might add, when we discover that it was a fanatical Jewish settler -- transposed from America -- who gunned down people at a gay walk-in center in Jerusalem. Religious fanaticism -- in Texas or the West Bank or in Gaza -- is a dangerous, dangerous impulse in an increasingly fundamentalist age. We should not balk at saying that as plainly as we can and demanding that religious leaders condemn the violent and extremist members of their respective flocks. And we should try much harder to find such extremists in the military and do a better job at monitoring them or throwing them out.

None of this justifies the bigoted, knee-jerk reaction of many on the right, of course, but I agree that these points need to be raised, just as they would in the event of a similar incident involving a Christian or Jewish extremist -- or any other religious extremist, for that matter.

Hasan's Muslim faith shouldn't shield him from such an investigation, and rejecting one extreme (right-wing bigotry) with another (avoidance, perhaps for political reasons) is dangerous insofar as it both perpetuates ignorance and allows the ignorance of the right to prevail. Denialism is no counter to bigotry, and, here, an effort to deny that Hasan's faith had anything to do with it simply comes across as an effort to cover up the truth. We need to know what really happened, what really was behind the massacre, even if that means an uncomfortable, and discomfiting, investigation into what role Hasan's faith played in the killing. (While also recognizing, of course, that other factors, related or not to his faith, were undoubtedly involved and that the motivations behind the attack were likely multiple and complicated.)

For while Hasan may or may not be connected to al Qaeda, and while the massacre may or may not have been a terrorist attack per se, it is important that the truth, however ugly, be known, not least as more about Hasan and his reprehensible beliefs comes out, so as to try to prevent such incidents from happening again and to counter efforts to spin the incident for partisan political purposes.

(Cross-posted from The Reaction.)