Calling Joe Lieberman’s Bluff

Calling Joe Lieberman’s Bluff

Could such stress lead other individuals to embrace fundamentalisms, be they Muslim, Jewish or Christian? Might it be a good idea to strengthen the wall of separation between church and state in what is supposed to be a secular fighting force? Let’s talk about Muslims in the military. But let’s hear General Casey when he says they are a source of strength rather than a threat, says John Nichols.

Following the horrific shootings at the Fort Hood army base in Texas, Connecticut Senator Lieberman pulled a thread from the right-wing blogosphere and called for a congressional inquiry into whether the incident was an act of “terrorism.” Not domestic terrorism, but full-blown terrorism comparable to what is seen in the most unstable war zones.

“This was an attack on America troops,” Lieberman chirped on Fox New Sunday. “You’ve got to see it as if 12 American troops were killed in Afghanistan.” But, wait, US soldiers in Afghanistan are fighting a strategically-sophisticated and structurally-coordinated enemy that employs traditional military tactics and terrorist strategies such as suicide bombings in urban areas.

Is Lieberman serious about making a comparison between what happened at Fort Hood and what happens in Kabul? Not really. When he’s pinned down, Lieberman makes the slightly more precise claim that the Army doctor who killed 13 people and wounded 29 at Fort Hood showed signs of being a “self-radicalized, homegrown terrorist.” Never mind that another way of saying “self-radicalized, homegrown terrorist” might be “completely isolated mental-health case.”

Never might that, when he started running the “terrorist” line on Fox New Sunday, host Chris Wallace used a sound line of questioning to make it clear that the senator did not have “any evidence so far (from) what you and your staff have heard in briefings that…he was exchanging communications either in this country or overseas with other Islamic radicals.”

Lieberman says he plans to use his chairmanship of the Senate Homeland Security Committee to launch a congressional investigation into the motives behind what he describes as “the worst terrorist attack since 9/11.”

In his calmer moments, Senator Lieberman admits that “it’s premature to reach conclusions about what motivated (Major Nidal Malik Hasan)” and acknowledges that “the stress he was under” was a factor. But, of course, the “homegrown terrorist” line was a headline grabber. And the senator will not let go.

So be it. Let’s call Joe Lieberman’s bluff. Let’s have the Homeland Security Committee hearings. While the Army and the FBI will conduct both criminal investigations and serious inquiries into why Major Hasan’s breakdown was not adequately noted or addressed by his commanders, congressional oversight of the military is always appropriate.

So have the hearings, but make them real. There is no need to downplay the fact that Major Hasan was a Muslim, or that he appears to have bought into some of the most extreme — and broadly rejected — variants on Islam.

There’s nothing wrong with asking precise, detailed questions that offer as much explanation and detail as can be accumulated. There is no point in being politically correct — or in being politically incorrect. Embrace transparency and facts. Bring in experts and ask questions. Ask all the questions.

What was the bigger factor motivating Major Hasan: stress or religion? Was Major Hasan a cold, calculating Islamic extremist or a deeply troubled man who was about to be dispatched to a war zone (Afghanistan) on a mission that associates and family members said was his “worst nightmare”?

Was the stress Major Hasan was under the sort that might lead an otherwise responsible individual to get lost in a swirl of religious ranting and fundamentalist fantasy? Could such stress lead other individuals to embrace fundamentalisms, be they Muslim, Jewish or Christian?

Might it be a good idea to strengthen the wall of separation between church and state in what is supposed to be a secular fighting force?

And don’t hesitate to ask questions about Muslims in the military. Was Major Hasan a typical American Muslim? or an outlier far removed from the mainstream values and practices of a religion that has been practiced in the United States since the founding of the republic?

Was Major Hasan typical in any way of the thousands of Muslims who currently serve in the US military? Isn’t it true that the overwhelming majority of Muslim soldiers serve with distinction and that, overall, Muslim soldiers — like their Jewish, Buddhist and Hindu comrades — have historically been seen as less likely to get involved in fights and violence on military bases?

Isn’t it true that Muslim soldiers are seen by military commanders as essential players in a diverse American Army that does not merely reflect the whole of America but that presents the best face of America in a world where it is vital to assure that this country’s military missions are not dismissed as the “crusades” of a western nation that does not understand Islam or Islamic states?

Was Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Casey right when he warned against actions that could “heighten the backlash” against Muslims in the military and argued that Muslim soldiers provide diversity which “gives us ALL strength”?

Was General Casey even more right when he declared after the shootings, and after he had reviewed detailed reports about Major Hasan’s background, motivations and actions, that: “As great a tragedy as this was, it would be a shame if our diversity became a casualty as well”?

John Nichols is Washington correspondent for The Nation magazine.