Jonathan Zimmerman : Fort Hood: What the right and the left have gotten wrong about Hasan

[Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University. He is the author, most recently, of "Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory."]

The tragic shooting has spawned plenty of hysteria but little discussion about what we should do about potential Islamic terrorists in our midst.

That is, can Americans really communicate? The word means, literally, "To make common." And at times like this, I wonder if it's possible.

I didn't hear about the Fort Hood shootings until several hours after the news broke, but when I did, much of what I heard wasn't true. Some people told me that the suspect, Army psychiatrist Maj. Nidal Hasan was a "convert" to Islam; others, that he had several Muslim accomplices; still others, that he had links to Al Qaeda.

False. False. False.

I got home to find the Internet aflame with vitriol, much of it directed at Islam itself. "Hasan is a BLACK MUSLIM," read a typical blog post. "This was a sleeper Muslim cell terrorist attack ... WITH MORE TO FOLLOW.... Unite AGAINST Islam now people!"

But I also found posts defending Hasan, who was reportedly facing overseas deployment. "They wanted to send him away to kill his own brothers and sisters in Iraq," one post screamed. "I would have done the same thing!"

Finally, others argued that any discussion of Hasan's ethnic or religious background was itself a form of discrimination. "I think giving out the Middle Eastern sounding name of the perpetrator is hate speech," a blogger argued. "No doubt this will give ammunition to patriotic Americans who value national security over diversity."

But that's precisely the discussion that we need to have: how to balance security and diversity, unity and freedom. How can we keep our country safe, but still respect the cultures of its different peoples? How can we join hands as a nation, but remain free as individuals?

And it's the same debate we've been having since 1776, when a Congressional committee suggested e pluribus unum – "out of many, one" – for our new national seal. But this discussion – like any real dialogue – requires agreement on a few basic ground rules: civility, reason, and tolerance.

During wartime, to be sure, Americans have often lost sight of these values. Consider attacks on German-Americans during the World War I, when several states banned the speaking of German in schools and on the streets. Or think of the internment of Japanese-Americans – and the confiscation of their property – during World War II.

The Internet attacks on "Islam" since Thursday's tragedy lie firmly within this tradition of nativism, bigotry, and hysteria. The shooter was Muslim, and what else do you need to know? Apparently, not much.

But irrationality and bad faith are hardly exclusive to the political right. The Fort Hood shootings have also triggered bouts of left-wing hysteria.

An extreme variation takes the form of the old syllogism, "My enemy's enemy is my friend." You don't like the war in Iraq; neither did Hasan; ergo, he must be OK in your book.

Never mind that Hasan gunned down more than three dozen innocents, or that he reportedly defended suicide bombers in Web postings. He's against all the right things, so you're for him.

More commonly, left-wing posters have refused to acknowledge any tension between freedom and security – or any threat to the United States from radical Islam. Hence the bizarre attacks on news organizations for noting Hasan's ethnic and religious background, as if any such information is irrelevant.

It isn't. There are people living here who want to commit acts of terror, and more than a few of them are radical Muslims. And Texas has seen its fair share.

In 1993, Kuwaiti immigrant Eyad Ismoil was living in Dallas when he was recruited to drive a bomb-laden van into a parking garage beneath the World Trade Center. Five years later, Lebanese-born Wadih el Hage – Osama bin Laden's personal secretary – was arrested in Tarrant County, Texas, for his involvement in the bombings of two US embassies in Africa.

After 9/11, a federal jury convicted five members of a Texas-based Islamic charity of funneling money to terrorists. And just last month, authorities arrested a 19-year-old Jordanian immigrant, Hosam Smadi, for allegedly attempting to blow up a Dallas skyscraper.

None of that means that Hassan was part of a terrorist conspiracy, of course, or that we should view every Islamic immigrant with suspicion. But it does mean that we have a serious security problem on our hands. And it's simply irrational to deny it.

Indeed, by wishing the problem away, we put off the discussion that we so urgently need. What should we do about potential Islamic terrorists in our midst? How can we protect national security and individual liberty, all at the same time?

These are tough questions, as old as the republic itself. But we'll never get good answers unless we really talk about them. So far, it's not clear that we can.

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Robert Lee Gaston - 11/18/2009

The people killed a Ft. Hood, TX were betrayed by Major Hasan’s chain of command.

The Major’s radical beliefs were reported by his colleagues to his superiors at Walter Reed Medical Center while he was still a Captain. In spite of this, and his reported poor performance, he was still promoted to Major.

It is difficult for the civilian community to understand the serious nature of an officer issuing complaints to superiors regarding a fellow officer. I also suppose medical doctors do not lightly lodge those complaints against a fellow physician. In spite of this he was promoted and transferred to Ft. Hood. I’m pretty sure that action just cleared someone’s inbox; (an action transferred is an action completed).
Soldiers have to be able to trust their officers. Patients have to be able to trust their doctors. In this case the Army failed on both accounts. The neglect and “cover your tail” political correctness displayed by Hasan’s superiors is disgraceful, at best. It ought to be criminal. A number of courts-martial should be in order. That, Mr. Zimmerman is true.

Fritz Mohn - 11/15/2009

Sirhan Sirhan was the first "home-grown" terrorist of middle-eastern descent. He was born in a Palestinian family in Jerusalem and came to the U.S. with his parents when he was twelve. When he murdered Robert F. Kennedy in June 1968, he was 24 years old. The political beliefs that made his crime an instance of terrorism were formed in the U.S., making him a "home-grown" terrorist.

Sirhan's family was Christian, and he never became a Muslim. Like Terry Nichols and Timothy McVeigh (and unlike Major Hasan), his terrorism was not jihadist. Sirhan's motive was his objection to RFK's promise to send 50 jet fighters to Israel. He timed the murder to coincide with the first anniversary of the first day of the Six Day War. The example of Sirhan Sirhan shows that middle-eastern terrorism may have nationalist, instead of religious roots. It is still terrorism.

Eugene Clough - 11/13/2009

Mr. Baker is to be commended for the forthright nature of his comments. It is highly desirable that the President, the network news departments and the major newspapers' editorial boards, not to mention the all-knowing priests of academe, would open their minds and appreciate what he has posted here.

Peter Kovachev - 11/11/2009

Of course, the third possibility, Mr Harper, is that fundementalist Islam or Islamicism is fundamentally a mental illness and the debate over Hasan's actions may just resemble the chicken-or-the-egg argument!

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 11/11/2009

The D.C. snipers were two more of our home-grown terrorists. (They had posters of binLaden on the walls in their Washington (state of) house, even though the PC media never chose to report it very widely). There was another, I think, picked up by the FBI at Fort Dix before he could act, and now this Major. And it seems like another had a bridge wired in New York City, or was it in Chicago? How many more are coming? That is what the Islamic enemy (including the suicidal killers) want us to worry about, but we would be crazy not to. It is no time to be turning off the listening devices.

Bob Harper - 11/11/2009

Indeed. And if Omar's right, then it is incumbent on the West to round up and deport all Muslims within their borders as security risks.
That's absurd, of course, but no more so than Omar's explanation of what can properly be described in only two possible ways: 1) the act of a madman, or 2) the act of an Islamic terrorist.

Peter Kovachev - 11/10/2009

As Omar's volunteer translator, my job is laughably easy tonight.

In this pleasant piece, Omar says that all "Palestinians" and Muslims are "huge ticking time-bombs," ready to explode into atavistic murderous rage no matter where they may be unless the world submits to their demands for the destruction of the Jewish state.

omar ibrahim baker - 11/9/2009

Several facts stand out from the ugly Fort Hood rampage:
1-Hatred runs very deep in all Palestinian hearts, be it by birth or descent, at Israel and, increasingly, at its money and arms provider and overall sustainer the USA.
2-Despite the elapse of some sixty years for the Nagba, ie the dislocation, dispossession and subjugation/disfranchisement of the Palestinian people from and in his homeland plus his denial his right to return thereto, the issue will never fade away and the hatred is, more than anything else, deepening and being transferred from generation to generation .
3-This hatred is transcending borders to all over the world to where ever Palestinians reside and/or are nationalized
4-This hatred is the catalyst of an anti West syndrome that is spreading world wide particularly to the Arab and Moslem words and turning the Palestinian issue into an all out religious/cultural West/Islam confrontation
5-No amount of reeducation, admission into other recipient countries/societies and presumed assimilation therein will make a Palestinian forget his homeland nor forgive its usurpers nor their sustainers.

Here we are talking about some 12-13 million Palestinians dwelling in their home land and in their own Diaspora plus some 1.5 billion Arabs and Moslems.

Palestinians are a huge ticking time bomb liable to explode anywhere any time and Moslems are a major world community...
.Time for the Western world to realize the tremendous mistake it made and for the main sustainers of Israel to reconsider and for both to work seriously at how best to correct this mistake and how best to remedy it before it is too late for all concerned.

John a Wilson - 11/8/2009

What does the author think is a proper solution to terror in our midst? Put one out there.

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