Are all terrorists the same?

Morning Joe is Joe Scarborough’s morning talk show on MSNBC. In the segment above, he discusses media treatment of the role religion played in the Ft. Hood shootings. It begins with a clip from the previous day’s show of the Washington Post‘s Sally Quinn decrying the focus on Major Nidal Hasan’s religious views (my transcript):

QUINN: This is the problem. He clearly had serious problems and, you know, he could have been a doctor. You could have said, “Well, a doctor killed all these people,” or “A disgruntled military man killed a lot of people.”

I mean, the fact is that part of it was that he was Muslim, that he was disaffected, that there is an incredible amount of harassment in the military that’s going on toward people who are religious minorities or atheists, and that’s condoned by the military.

Quinn’s career never really ceases to amaze me but the fact is that she represents a viewpoint held by many in the mainstream media. To counter Quinn’s views, we next hear from Irshad Manji, an NYU professor and Muslim who has written a book titled “The Trouble With Islam Today.” Manji had written a column in Toronto’s Globe & Mail arguing that Hasan’s Muslim identity matters and should be analyzed instead of whitewashed:

MANJI: Understanding requires analyzing, not sanitizing. I’m not interested in hysteria. It’s clear that we have to be careful not to reduce this story to Islam but the corrective to that is not to whitewash Islam from public discussion of the story altogether. It’s to put the role of religious conviction in its proper perspective. And by the way, we won’t know what that proper perspective is until all the details have come in. But in and among those details has to be the detail that Major Hasan visited radical Islamist web sites, that he had email exchanges with an extremist preacher, that he reportedly shouted “Allahu Akbar” before he opened fire on comrades, that he told fellow community members that he did not wish to fight fellow Muslims. So my point simply is that this is a complex case but complexity is not served by, you know, excising certain factors out of the equation merely because you’re uncomfortable with them.

We’ve seen stories that attempt to explain Hasan’s actions as being motivated by mental health problems rather than religious views. But we also have a solid percentage of stories being written where reporters are doing painstaking research and connecting dots that include heavy doses of discussion of religion.

The Morning Joe team discusses a Canadian incident where police busted up a terror plot involving nearly 20 young Muslim men who claimed to have been motivated by religious views. But the police didn’t mention Islam or Muslim in their press conferences and even bragged about avoiding those terms. Manji suggests that this approach doesn’t serve or protect the public. Scarborough mentions that in the Hasan case, some avoided mentioning his name on air.

At this point, Newsweek editor Jon Meacham chimes in with his take:

MEACHAM: Here’s, for what it’s worth, here’s what I think: I think the president was right to say don’t jump to conclusions. We can now at least sort of hop up to one. And it is that this is an act of terrorism committed by someone — clearly a Muslim, clearly influenced to some extent, we don’t know yet what, by radical Islam. Let’s call it what it is. It is an act of terror, which is part of what we’ve been struggling with now for nearly a decade. In the same way, to some extent, now I would not refer to it as Islamic terror in the same way I would not call Oklahoma City Christian terror.

But there is no doubt that Timothy McVeigh — and I am a Christian — there is no doubt that Timothy McVeigh was affected by the warped edges of a white supremacist ideology that was informed to some extent and to some degree by antisemitism and that part of the world. So I wouldn’t shy away from it. It does a disservice to the people who fell.

mcveigh_timeNow I appreciate what Meacham is attempting to argue. Or what I think he’s attempting to argue. I think he’s saying that Islam as Islam does not necessarily lead to terror.

But equating Timothy McVeigh’s motivation — which was extreme hatred of the federal government — with Christianity just boggles the mind. Anyone who has read the views of McVeigh — and yes, I realize this was some time ago, but they’re readily available online — would know that he rarely discussed religion. And when he did, he did not indicate any motivation at all coming from religion.

Even though the attack on Ft. Hood is just a week old, we already have quite a bit of indication about Hasan’s religious views playing a role. You can’t get his former classmates or colleagues to stop talking about it and it’s pretty apparent that the military and FBI mishandled the clear signals he was sending about his religious views.

Yes, both Timothy McVeigh and Nidal Hasan killed people (or, I should say, Hasan is alleged to have killed people). But not all mass murderers are the same.

For those curious about McVeigh’s views, I recommend “American Terrorist: Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City Bombing.” Written by two journalists who corresponded with and covered McVeigh’s trial and execution, the book describes McVeigh as having somewhat complicated views, but the takeaway is probably best summarized by his quote “Science is my religion.” He was raised and even confirmed Catholic. But the book also describes him as avoiding worship while in the military, once visiting a Seventh Day Adventist congregation and finding it boring, and claiming that he lost touch with religion. Again, this does not sound like the Christian equivalent of one Major Hasan.

Time magazine interviewed him about his religious views and he said he wasn’t terribly religious but did believe in a God. Shortly before he was executed, he accepted an offer to receive last rites from a priest. But he also sent a letter to the Buffalo News where he described himself as an agnostic but said he would “improvise, adapt and overcome”, if it turned out there was an afterlife. Here’s how Dan Herbeck, one of the Buffalo News reporters, explained it it in an interview with ABC’s Sam Donaldson:

HERBECK Well, he is an agnostic. He doesn’t believe in God, but he has told us he doesn’t not believe in God. Death is part of his adventure, as he describes it to us. And he told us that when he finds out if there is an afterlife, he will improvise, adapt and overcome just like they taught him in the Army.

There’s a reason why Jon Meacham would not refer to the Oklahoma City bombing as Christian terror — it wasn’t. And it’s time for folks to stop rewriting history to make it so.

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  • Chris

    “You can’t get his former classmates or colleagues to stop talking about it…”

    Those officers who speak to the press about MAJ Hasan under the condition of anonymity are disobeying orders. They are not authorized to speak to the press. There are likely others, who are obeying orders, who are not speaking to the press. Reporters need to take this into account–the stories that are being told anonymously (and the story tellers) may be different than those that are not being told and are not speaking.

  • Chris Bolinger

    You hit the nail on the head, Mollie. Again.

  • Chris

    “You can’t get his former classmates or colleagues to stop talking about it…”

    Many of those classmates and colleagues are also active duty military officers and have been instructed (read “ordered”) not to speak to the press. Although they speak under condition of anonymity, they are disobeying orders. There are likely classmates and colleagues who are obeying orders and not speaking to the press at all. Their stories may differ–there is potential for bias here. Reporters need to take this into account. They also need to remember that powerpoint slides disassociated from the narrative that went with them may not tell the whole story.

  • Bern

    Chris, that’s a very good point, but it also underlines the “spin control” going on here. What exactly is it for? To keep from aggravating certain pre-conceptions/reactions in the US–or overseas? It’s a delicate line being walked here.

    Mollie, I agree Meacham picked a poor analogy in McVeigh, who seemed as conflicted about religion as he was about reality. Besides, infant baptism doesn’t even count in some denominations so even a label of “nominal” Christian doesn’t apply to him. What the major and McVeigh do have in common in their military backgrounds, divergent as they were, one being an enlisted man and the other an officer.

  • Chris

    Of course the Army is attempting to control the information coming out about this event. It always does in its relationship with the press. Its goals are different than those of the press. Officers do not speak individually to the press unless they are authorized to do so. One reason for this is if they speak as officers, they are speaking as government/military “officials”

    MAJ Hasan will be tried in military court, and the official spokespersons must speak in such a way that it is evident that he will be afforded a fair trial. I’ve noticed that official spokespersons for the Army have been careful to indicate that he is a “suspect”, “the accused”, or the “alleged”.

  • Dave

    Seems to me Meacham invoked McVeigh’s Christianity to rebut the notion that one’s nominal religion need have anything to do with one’s actions; not to turn OK City into an act of Christian terrorism. Is there anyone else promoting the latter claim?

  • Jerry

    I’m glad you reviewed Manji’s call for clear-eyed, even-tempered and open-minded honesty.

  • Suzanne

    I agree that the comparison to McVeigh was inappropriate.

    Comparisons to Eric Rudolph (who was in fact charged with a terrorist act) and Scott Roeder (who wasn’t) are more apt.

  • Mollie

    While I’m sure there are many others to choose from, Eric Rudolph would not be an apt comparison — although many in the media tried to paint him as a “Christian terrorist” as well. I’m reminded of what he wrote to his mother about the Christians who wrote letters to him in prison:

    “Most of them have, of course, an agenda; mostly born-again Christians looking to save my soul. I suppose the assumption is made that because I’m in here I must be a ’sinner’ in need of salvation, and they would be glad to sell me a ticket to heaven, hawking this salvation like peanuts at a ballgame….I do appreciate their charity, but I could really do without the condescension. They have been so nice I would hate to break it to them that I really prefer Nietzsche to the Bible.”

  • Mollie


    But Meacham was saying he wouldn’t call OK City Christian terrorism IN THE SAME WAY he wouldn’t call Fort Hood Muslim terrorism.

    But nobody who knew McVeigh and his co-conspirators claim a religious motivation. The Justice Department certainly didn’t make that claim during the trial. But we already have volumes of claims about the religious motivation of Hasan. We don’t know where all the chips will fall, but there is really no comparison between the two — in terms of religious motivation.

  • Mollie

    I should reiterate that I appreciate what Meacham was trying to do — but he really chose the wrong comparison with McVeigh.

  • Suzanne

    He also described himself as a Catholic and at war to end abortion.

  • Suzanne

    Clarifying — it was Rudolph who described himself as a Catholic who was at war to end “this holocaust,” as he described abortion.

    In the same statement, he quoted Matthew 23:28 to condemn Republicans and others who professed to be pro-life but didn’t back up their words with actions.

    He certainly doesn’t sound areligious.

  • Mollie

    Even with McVeigh’s belief in “Science” and Rudolph’s love of Nietzche over the Bible, I wouldn’t say either are areligious either.

    But if we can’t tell the difference between THEIR religious adherence and Hasan’s, we shouldn’t bother trying.

  • Suzanne

    But we’re not just talking about religious adherence; we’re also (and more importantly) talking about religious motivation, which may not necessarily correlate with adherence.

    Unless your assertion is that adherence to Islam encourages or requires religiously motivated terrorism, while adherence to Christianity does not.

  • Mollie

    Suzanne, neither McVeigh NOR Rudolph ever suggested that they had even the slightest religious motivation. They both explicitly denied it, in fact.

    I’m not talking about Islam or Christianity. I’m talking about what criminals/terrorists CLAIM or INDICATE as their motivation.

    We have much left to learn about Hasan but it would be silly to ignore the role that religion played for him.

  • Dave

    Mollie, I get your point. I think Meacham was mistaken about Hasan. Somebody on another list opined that the media need to frame Fort Hood as another terrorist attack on US soil, which they seem reluctant to do. I wish they would; it would lead to a fruitful discussion not only about whether that is an appropirate frame, but of what kind of measures supposedly keep us safe from such things.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Funny how science gets off scot-free in being blamed for horrendous acts. Apparently T. McVeigh “outgrew” (as pro-abortion Catholics like to brag) his confirmation Catholic religion–matured and apparently made science his terrorist religion. The same thing is true of Nazi Germany. Christians get all the blame, but it was the German scientists’ “Master Race” theories that sealed the fate of the Jews–and others.

  • Aaron

    “Somebody on another list opined that the media need to frame Fort Hood as another terrorist attack on US soil, which they seem reluctant to do. I wish they would; it would lead to a fruitful discussion not only about whether that is an appropirate frame, but of what kind of measures supposedly keep us safe from such things.”

    The media won’t even use the term “torture,” why should we expect them to use the word “terrorism”?

    I understand the concern that “terrorism” has a specific meaning, and it’s not clear whether Hasan’s behavior met that specific test. That’s why Roeder’s behavior can be defined as “terrorism,” as can Rudolph’s, but the evidence is still out on Hasan.

    But took how long it has taken for even a small part of the media to use the term “torture” to define what happened during the Bush administration. And the evidence there was pretty clear.

  • AmaniS

    Why call it terrorism at all?
    It was a mass murder.
    What exactly makes it an act a terrorism?

    Was the Son of Sam an act of terrorism? It lasted longer and gave alot more terror than this.
    Boston Strangler? Most serial killers leave a land with much more terror that one single act of mass murder. Is because someone does something because of religion make it terrorism?

  • Dave

    Amani, whether it’s terrorism depends on the motivation of the person doing the mass murdering. There are clues in this man’s contacts that he might have had truck with Islamist militants. It was Islamist militants who pulled off 9/11. If there’s a connection, it’s journalistic negligence not to explore it.

    If there were no such contacts it would be irresponsible journalism to bring it up. Important judgement call.

  • Mollie

    I thought terrorism was defined by the target, too. I thought terrorism has to target civilians and not military folks. This seems more like treason than terrorism in that sense.

  • Dave

    Technically an attack on military targets that would be terrorism if applied to civilians is known as asymmetric warfare. That’s getting pretty far down in the weeds for a working reporter, imho. Using “terrorism” to cover both is afaik fairly standard, especially if the perpetrator is not a government.

  • Will

    I also remember that almost immediately after news reports of the arrests in the Oklahoma bombing, the person passing the news on to me identified the suspects as “white supremacists”, of which there is also zero evidence.

    I guess all white terrorists are interchangeable Rightwingnuts.

    Recall the coverage when Colin Ferguson went on a commuter train and started shooting any white passenger he saw. “The media” assured us that he was just a loony, despite the references in his papers to “racist Caucasians”, and race had nothing to do with it. Can anyone doubt that if a white shooter had started killing black passengers, we would be told that race had everything to do with it?

  • Fredric L. Rice

    Complete and utter [expletive deleted -ed.]. Timothy McVeigh was undeniably a Christanic terrorists. Denial is what allows Christian terrorism to continue virtually unabaited.

    [many unsubstantiated, vaguely coherent rantings deleted -ed.]