On Thursday afternoon, Army psychiatrist Major Nidal Malik Hasan allegedly drew his handgun inside a processing center at Ft. Hood, Texas, cried “Allahu Akhbar” and began firing. By the time the rampage was ended by a civilian police officer named Sgt. Kimberly D. Munley, Hasan allegedly killed 13 people and injured dozens of others.
Since the shooting, a number of Hasan’s acquaintances have come forward with stories about how the major reportedly had expressed opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and gave a presentation in an environmental health seminar titled “Why the War on Terror Is a War on Islam.” Hasan reportedly logged onto a radical Islamist Web sites to express sympathy with suicide bombers and may have attended the same mosque as several of the 9/11 hijackers when a radical Imam, Anwar al Awlaki, was preaching there. Awlaki has since praised Hasan on his personal Web site, saying, “How can there be any dispute about the virtue of what he has done?”
Given all these factors, who could possibly question whether the Ft. Hood shootings were an act of religious terrorism?
Investigators, apparently. The New York Times reported on Sunday that officials looking into the case believed “Hasan acted out under a welter of emotional, ideological and religious pressures.” Whether Hasan acted on his own, or at the behest of outside terrorist groups or figures has yet to be determined.
It is too early then, to come to a definitive conclusion about whether or not the Ft. Hood shootings were an act of terrorism—which is why investigators haven’t. Ultimately, that determination will hinge on whether Hasan was acting with a political or religious objective in mind—or whether he used Islam as a pretext to justify the murders he allegedly committed because he was a lonely, deranged outsider who wanted to avoid deployment to Afghanistan. According to the New York Times, Hasan was called a “camel jockey” and felt persecuted by other servicemen for being of Arab descent.
Part of what makes this discussion so difficult is that terrorism has yet to be clearly defined—but it’s safe to say that at its core, terrorism is about targeting noncombatants with violence or the threat of violence in order to achieve a political objective. No amount of teasing would justify the crimes Hasan allegedly committed. But if Hasan was taking out his personal anger, fear and anxiety by going on a rampage instead of attempting to achieve a political objective, then Hasan may be more Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris than Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri.
As the investigation moves forward, however, there may be no clear line with which to distinguish Hasan’s personal motivations from his religious or political views. In a sense, the argument over whether or not Hasan’s actions were terrorism has become a proxy argument about whether Islam in general, and Muslims by implications, are in a larger sense responsible for Hasan’s alleged crimes. In the wake of the shooting, several right-wing figures, including Michelle Malkin, Allen West and Fox News host Brian Kilmeade, seized on the shootings to impugn the service of the thousands of American Muslims in the armed forces—as though American Muslims should be held collectively responsible for the murders Hasan allegedly committed. Then there’s Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., who on Sunday said that “there are very, very strong warning signs here that Dr. Hasan had become an Islamist extremist and therefore that this was a terrorist act.”
The Ft. Hood shootings may be an act of religious terrorism—or radical Islam may have played the same role in Hasan’s mind as South Korean revenge films did in the mind of Seung-Hui Cho. But even if it turns out that Hasan was a true believer, a hardened terrorist and not simply a disturbed individual who went on a rampage—his crimes will be his own.
Adam Serwer is a writing fellow at The American Prospect. Follow him on Twitter.