Commentary: Treading too lightly around Fort Hood case

On the evening after Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan shot 43 people at the Fort Hood military base, CNN's Larry King Live invited the TV psychologist known chummily as Dr. Phil to help the audience understand what might have motivated Hasan to open fire, killing 12 of his fellow soldiers and one civilian and injuring 30 others. Dr Phil enlightened viewers with pseudo-scientific speculation about how war stress would cause someone to "snap."

President Obama urged Americans not to rush to judgment before we had the facts, but most of the non-right-wing media did exactly that, all but settling on a diagnosis for Hasan, an army psychiatrist, as the victim of stress acquired by listening to the terrible stories told by his patients and worrying about his own deployment.

You could almost see the discomfort on television anchors' faces when the name "Hasan" emerged. It was time to tread lightly. Responsible journalists wanted to avoid even contemplating the possibility that this was an act of terrorism by a radical Muslim.

The word "Muslim," when uttered at all, was used to explain that Hasan had been victimized by anti-Muslim slurs.

The word "terrorism" was almost completely absent as the motivation for the killings became the main story in the country for several days.

The truth, however, is that it was not unreasonable to at least consider that the attacker might have been following the violent dictates of a most extreme form of Islamic Jihad. Surely the idea crossed the minds of those watching Dr. Phil or reading the hundreds of articles published in the wake of the shooting, explaining post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), combat stress and the perils of treating emotionally wounded soldiers.

The otherwise-responsible media outlets wanted to avoid triggering a backlash against Muslims, so they ignored the proverbial elephant in the living room. That eroded their credibility.

As evidence mounted that Hasan might be a religious fanatic and was in frequent contact with a radical cleric connected to al Qaida, pop psychology still filled the airwaves. On National Public Radio, we heard it explained that Hasan, "short and a little chubby," might be one of those "who have a sexual-romantic incompetence, [and] redirect their masculinity."

The circumstances called for addressing the ideology of violent political and religious extremism. But that topic proved much too uncomfortable. If the attack had happened in a Muslim country, the local population would have immediately known the likely motivation, and would have talked about it openly.

In this country, however, mainstream and progressive media yielded a legitimate topic of discussion to the very people who would incite anti-Muslim sentiment.

Instead of a pop-psychologist, or perhaps in addition to mental-health professionals, they should have interviewed moderate Muslims and experts in radical ideology. They could have noted the undeniable fact that an overwhelming majority of Muslims, far in excess of 99 percent, are not terrorists or prone to terrorism.

But at the same time, they would have acknowledged that a large proportion of terrorist attacks are, in fact, carried out by Muslim extremists. And that most of their victims, civilians killed with awful frequency in places such as Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan, Indonesia and other Muslim-majority countries, are also Muslims.

Instead of helping shed light, an over-cautious western media and their well-heeled interviewees took off in a direction they found more comfortable, expounding on the trauma caused by war.

They made war itself the perpetrator of this terrible crime, avoiding what the facts now increasingly point to: that the alleged killer was likely driven by extremist Islamic ideology, the very ideology the United States is now fighting in what used to be called "the war on terror."

Islamic extremism is, in fact the enemy. And it is the enemy of hundreds of millions of Muslims throughout the world who want to live lives free of violence and repression. There are scores of Muslim organizations in all continents fighting for democratic values. It is not anti-Muslim to see that the Hasan massacre could offer further proof of how dangerous this ideology is and how important for moderate Muslims to defeat their extremist brethren.

Many Muslims eagerly want to debate the issue. It is they who have the most at stake. But the U.S. and European media find the subject awkward and remain reluctant to look at it squarely.

Well-meaning journalists think they are doing Muslims a favor by staying away from the topic. The same is true for politicians who would rather avoid the word terrorism or the killer's religion when describing this act. What they are doing is letting others hijack the conversation and shape the debate. That does no one a favor.


Frida Ghitis writes about world affairs for the Miami Herald.