Conservatives have long argued that political correctness contributed to the massacre at Fort Hood on Nov. 5, 2009 -- during which a radicalized Army psychiatrist named Nidal Malik Hasan allegedly killed 13 people and wounded 32 others. The problem, though, is much deeper than what the phrase "political correctness" implies in conservative circles -- mere deference to minority groups or the fact that the president doesn't say the word "terrorism" enough.
Yesterday's Senate committee hearings explored the findings of a months-long investigation into the Fort Hood shootings, which revealed that Hasan rose almost mechanically despite poor performance, that disturbing statements were ignored, and that he had openly expressed radical views to colleagues. Superiors viewed his scholarly work into Islamic radicalism as "praiseworthy and useful to U.S. counterterrorism efforts," despite the fact that he expressed sympathy for terrorists and justified suicide bombing. The report notes that an instructor and a colleague had each referred to Hasan as a "ticking time bomb." Hasan so obviously embraced radicalism that it seemed like he was practically begging to be kicked out -- yet he was inexplicably scheduled to deploy to Afghanistan. Perversely, one evaluation talked about Hasan's "keen interest in Islamic culture and faith and his shown capacity to contribute to our psychological understanding of Islamic nationalism and how it may relate to events of national security and Army interest in the Middle East and Asia."
The report suggests some gross incompetence on the part of Hasan's superiors -- but summarizing this as "political correctness" or some kind of affirmative action gone horribly awry leads one to the wrong conclusion about how to solve the problem. In the aftermath of the shooting, some conservatives cited Hasan's behavior as justifying racial profiling or excluding Muslims from the armed services. During the Senate's hearing on the matter in January of 2010, Oklahoma Republican Sen. Jim Inhofe declared bluntly that "I believe in racial and ethnic profiling." But collectively punishing American Muslims and Muslim service members for Hasan's alleged crimes would simply make things worse. It would merely legitimize the extremist narrative that Islam and extremism are inseparable.
That's exactly what we don't need. Witnesses at yesterday's hearing suggested the opposite approach. Since the so-called political correctness that contributed to the Fort Hood incident was largely the result of ignorance about the difference between mainstream Islam and its radical incarnations, service members needed to be better educated about what mainstream Islam actually looks like. Even if a general fear of seeming bigoted was part of the problem, pluralism is still the solution.
"If service members clearly understand the difference between their religion, and the dangerous radicalism of violent Islamist extremism," testified Jack Keane, a retired Army general, "the patriotic Muslims in our armed services will be protected against unwarranted suspicion." Keane recommended that training and education programs would help arm officers with the ability to make the distinction. But there's no better teacher than experience. Rather than banning Muslims from the military or treating them with suspicion, the lesson of Fort Hood is that the military needs more Muslim recruits. When service members -- and for that matter, most Americans -- can tell the difference between mainstream Islam and extremism, both Islamophobia and apprehension about identifying problematic behavior will be excised.
There's a fine line between identifying radical statements and actions without legitimizing terrorist narratives or smearing Muslims as a whole. Both Sen. Joe Lieberman and Gen. Keane criticized the Obama administration's reluctance to identify al-Qaeda and like-minded groups as "Islamic extremists" or "jihadists," a decision that has been similarly derided by the right as more political correctness.
"I think some in the administration believe that if we [use these words], it will compromise our relationship with the broader Muslim world and to some extent, with the Muslim American community," Lieberman said.
What this audience mistakes for polite wordplay has strategic significance. The national-security strategy released by the administration last year reads, "We reject the notion that al-Qaeda represents any religious authority. They are not religious leaders, they are killers, and neither Islam nor any other religion condones the slaughter of innocents."
Phil Mudd, a counterterrorism expert and veteran of both the CIA and the FBI, made an argument that mirrored the administration's approach. "We have a problem with violent Islamic extremist ideology in this country," Mudd told Lieberman but added that "I would discourage you from ever using the word 'terrorism' or 'Islamist' in a speech." That's partly because members of groups like al-Qaeda want to be called Islamists -- they want others to believe they're acting in furtherance of Islam. "They hate to be called murderers, and that is what they are."
Lieberman brushed Mudd's concerns aside. "I'm unconvinced," he said. "I'm going to call them all of those things, because that's what they are. They're violent Islamist extremists, and they're murderers, and they're terrorists."
"I agree that's what they are," Mudd said. "I'm just saying, don't give them what they want," Mudd said.
There were other failures that kept superiors from neutralizing the threat Hasan posed so clearly in hindsight. The FBI had been monitoring Hasan's communications with a "terror suspect" (reportedly, American-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki) but that information never reached his chain of command. That was due partly to flawed information-sharing procedures and also to the FBI's worries about compromising a separate counterterrorism investigation. Keane suggested during testimony that, had Hasan's superiors been notified, they might have acted. "That would have been enough to get [Hasan's superiors] over their reluctance about what they were facing," Keane said. Still, Hasan, despite his radical beliefs, hadn't committed any violent acts before Nov. 5.
The problem, of course, is what to call it when we see it. There's a difference between understanding the nuances of political communication and recognizing the frankness required for internal evaluations of military personnel. For Hasan's superiors to have labeled him a radical early on wouldn't have been "politically incorrect" -- just correct. It also might have stopped him.