What We Are Talking About When We Say Certain Words, Part II


Lots of chatter and several threads here.

Jonah Goldberg at The Corner, in two parts. Here:

Much of the chatter over the weekend was whether or not the Fort Hood shooting can be classified a “terrorist attack.” It seems to me this reveals one of the shortcomings of the language of the war on terror. I know there are all sorts of legalistic definitions about what constitutes terrorism and what doesn’t. But it seems to me a case could be made that this was, variously, an act of war, an act of treason, or a war crime, but not an act of terrorism.

Terrorism is, by conventional definition, an attack on civilians intended to strike fear in the non-military population in order to advance a political or ideological agenda. Hasan didn’t attack civilians, he attacked uniformed members of the U.S. Army in advance of their deployment to the frontlines. It was an evil act, but was it an act of terrorism?

Ultimately, if we’re going to call the violent acts of Jihadis “terrorism” wherever and whenever they occur, then I guess I’m fine with calling it terrorism. But I can’t help but think this illuminates some blind spots in the way we think about these questions.

And here:

Again, I am very uncomfortable with the idea that I might sound like I’m trying to diminish the guy’s crimes. He committed treason and murder. It was a cowardly act. If we are at war, then it was a war crime.

But I think the reader’s definition of terrorism might move us into dangerous territory. In Pakistan, we launch missiles at people’s homes with civilians in or around them to take out al-Qaeda leadership. The attacks are — hopefully — always intended to be something of a surprise. But I wouldn’t call that terrorism. I’m just uncomfortable with the word terrorism metastasizing into “anything the bad guys do to us.” Why not call what Hasan did a war crime? Terrorism is a war crime but not all war crimes are terrorism.

Of course, the fact that Jihadis reject all of the rules of war makes it very difficult to figure out how to even talk about the rules. (Just out of curiosity, what would the legal definition be of, say, a Japanese officer turning on fellow Japanese troops during World War Two in the apparent hope of aiding the Allies?)

As I said before, if terrorism is now the catchall for dastardly acts committed by Jihadis, then calling this attack terrorism works fine for me. But if this is really a war — and I think it is — then I think we could spend some more time thinking a bit more rigorously about our vocabulary. For those interested, this is a longstanding interest of mine.

Kevin Drum on Goldberg:

I think that’s right, and it’s nice to see some pushback from the right on this.  There’s a lot of evidence to suggest that Nidal Malik Hasan was (a) quite mentally disturbed and (b) motivated by religious beliefs, but that doesn’t make what he did a terrorist act.  Unlike, say, a suicide bomber in Jerusalem, there’s hardly even a hint that he was trying to make any kind of political statement.  There was no note, no videotape left behind, no explanation while he was shooting, no nothing.  What kind of terrorist does that?

Jeffrey Goldberg:

A consensus seems to have formed here at The Atlantic that the Ft. Hood massacre means not very much at all. Megan McArdle writes that “there is absolutely no political lesson to be learned from this.” James Fallows says: “The shootings never mean anything. Forty years later, what did the Charles Whitman massacre ‘mean’? A decade later, do we ‘know’ anything about Columbine?”  And the Atlantic Wire has already investigated the motivation for the shooting, and released its preliminary findings. Of Nidal Malik Hasan, the Wire states: “A 39-year-old Army psychiatrist, he appears to have not been motivated by his Muslim religion, his Palestinian heritage (he is American by nationality), or any related political causes.”

It seems, though, that when an American military officer who is a practicing Muslim allegedly shoots forty of his fellow soldiers who are about to deploy to the two wars the United States is currently fighting in Muslim countries, some broader meaning might, over time, be discerned, especially if the officer did, in fact, yell “Allahu Akbar” while murdering his fellow soldiers, as some soldiers say he did. This is the second time this year American soldiers on American soil have been gunned down by a Muslim who was reportedly unhappy with America’s wars in the Middle East (the first took place in Arkansas, to modest levels of notice). And, of course, this would not be the first instance of an American Muslim soldier killing fellow soldiers over his disagreements with American foreign policy; in 2003, Army Sgt. Hasan Akbar killed two officers and wounded fourteen others when he rolled a grenade into a tent in a homicidal protest against American policy.

I am not arguing, of course, that American Muslims, as a whole, are violently unhappy with America (I’ve argued the opposite, in fact). But I do think that elite makers of opinion in this country try very hard to ignore the larger meaning of violent acts when they happen to be perpetrated by Muslims. Here’s a simple test: If Nidal Malik Hasan had been a devout Christian with pronounced anti-abortion views, and had he attacked, say, a Planned Parenthood office, would his religion have been considered relevant as we tried to understand the motivation and meaning of the attack? Of course. Elite opinion makers do not, as a rule, try to protect Christians and Christian belief from investigation and criticism. Quite the opposite. It would be useful to apply the same standards of inquiry and criticism to all religions.

Megan McArdle:

I made it clear that I believed Hasan was trying to follow in the footsteps of Al Qaeda, et al–either because he was crazy, or because he was a deeply evil human being with no regard for the lives of others.  Even a few hours after the shooting, what we knew of him made it likely that this was somehow connected to his religion, and the war.

So why did I say that there were no political lessons to be learned from this?  Because it wasn’t new information that there are Muslims in the world who object to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and would like to kill a bunch of Americans.  It was always possible that one of them, somewhere, was going to find their way to somewhere where they could do damage.  I can think of half a dozen easy ways to kill a significant number of people without getting caught, if I wanted to.  So could most of you.  The terrorist’s job is made harder by wanting a certain sort of spectacular crime, not merely a death toll. But not much harder.

As of last week, what information did we have that would lead to any useful political response?  Were we going to start kicking Muslims out of the government and the armed forces?  That’s unconstitutional, would brutally wrong the overwhelming majority of the Muslim community that is not involved in terrorism, and would deprive us of a valuable source of translators and other advisers to our military and intelligence efforts.  We know that some number of Muslims living in this country hate our government and want to act against it.  We also know (by the rarity of attacks, if nothing else) that this number is small, and any loose networks are poorly organized and largely ineffective.  Given this, there’s not very much you can do with this information, other than what we’re already doing, which is have the FBI try to track down terrorist plots.  Something that they seem to be doing very well when the attacker is not a lone gunman with no need for a support team.  This particular attack would have been very hard to stop for anyone, without doing terrible, terrible things to our Muslim citizens.

And if you think that’s okay, I invite you to consider whether you would be all right with similar incursions into evangelical churches every time an abortion clinic or doctor gets attacked.  After all, the pro-life community does produce these wackos, and its radical fringe may even shelter them.  Why shouldn’t every Southern Baptist get a little extra scrutiny?

Jason Zengerle at TNR:

I continue to be puzzled/annoyed by the reluctance to call the Fort Hood shootings a terrorist act. If we’re going to label Scott Roeder–a man with a history of mental illness and extreme religious and political views who allegedly killed George Tiller–an anti-abortion terrorist, then I don’t see the problem in calling Nidal Hassan a terrorist, since there’s plenty of evidence* that his actions were motivated, in part, by his religious and political views. The fact that he also appears to have been under severe psychological duress doesn’t make him any less of a terrorist than Roeder.

That said, there’s the larger question of what political lessons to draw from Hassan and the Fort Hood shootings, and I think Megan McArdle is spot-on


Of course, this is why I think it’s important not to shy away from using the t-word when discussing the Hassan shootings: so that people of good will can then move on to make McArdle’s point, which can’t be said enough, since there’s no dearth of people loudly making the arguments McArdle is taking head-on.

*– When I say “evidence,” I’m talking about the reports of relatives and colleagues of Hassan who describe him as upset by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and increasingly radical in his religious beliefs. I’m not talking about this Brian Ross report for ABC News that Hassan had tried to reach out and touch Al Qaeda. Given Ross’s sorry track record on some of this stuff, I’ll wait for another reporter to confirm it before I believe it.

John Judis at TNR, responding Zengerle:

Jason Zengerle argues that if one calls Scott Roeder’s killing of abortion doctor George Tillman a terrorist act, then one has to call Nidal Hassan, who perpetrated the Fort Hood massacre, a terrorist because his actions were “motivated, in part, by religious and political views.” I don’t think I agree with Jason – at least given the evidence to date about Nidal Hassan’s motives.

We don’t know yet what motivated Nidal Hassan – to say the same thing, what he hoped to accomplish by killing his fellow soldiers.  It is not enough to say he had political or religious views.   To make a case that he was a terrorist, you have to know a little more than we do.

I associate terrorism generally with a political movement that has certain objectives that it believes it cannot accomplish either through ordinary politics or conventional military engagement, but only – given the asymmetry of force — through solitary acts that by sowing fear and creating discord,  force the oppressor to cede power or to cease whatever activity the movement objects to – from Czarist rule to performing abortions in a clinic.

We don’t know yet whether Nidal Hassan had any connection to al Qaeda or a similar terrorist movement, or even whether, like the Oklahoma City bombers or Scott Roeder, he imagined that he was acting on behalf of such a movement. It is still possible that his was an act of suicidal protest at his being sent to Afghanistan and was not intended to reduce support among Americans for the war in Afghanistan.  Until we know this about him, I am reluctant to call him a terrorist, particularly because doing so arouses fears of a Jihadist conspiracy in our midst that may not exist, or that may be containable by the same means we are presently using.

UPDATE: Jason Zengerle and John Judis

Cliff May at National Review

UPDATE #2: Glenn Greenwald

Adam Serwer at Tapped


1 Comment

Filed under Crime, Go Meta, GWOT, Homeland Security

One response to “What We Are Talking About When We Say Certain Words, Part II

  1. Pingback: What We’ve Built Today « Around The Sphere

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