Having spent two years working in the relentless, 24-hour world of Sky News, dealing with "breaking news" stories, I am almost immune to reports out of the United States of gunmen running amok and killing members of the public/co-workers/students/delete-as-applicable. However, the latest incident at Fort Hood -- the largest US military base in the world -- in which 13 people were killed and more than 30 injured, is different for two reasons.
First, the nature of the attack is so shockingly treacherous, a US army major and mental health professional turning his weapon on his own colleagues and fellow soldiers in such a cold-blooded manner, in the middle of a military base. As President Obama said, "It is difficult enough when we lose these brave men and women abroad, but it is horrifying that they should come under fire at an army base on US soil." And that, too, by a fellow serving officer. The attack came less than 48 hours after it emerged that five British soldiers in Afghanistan had been killed -- in a surprise attack -- by a "rogue" Afghan policeman who opened fire on them as they sat sipping tea at a checkpoint in Helmand Province. The stench of betrayal, in both incidents, is overwhelming.
The second aspect of the attack that makes it stand out is that the attacker, who has survived and is in hospital, is Muslim: Major Nidal Malik Hasan, a trained psychiatrist. Was this, therefore, a "terrorist attack"? Is Hasan a "jihadist" infiltrator? These are perhaps understandable questions that are now being raised.
However, some commentators on the US right and far right have gone further in providing definitive, conclusive and politically convenient motives for the attack, based on little more than speculation and prejudice. Take Robert Spencer. The bestselling conservative author, self-proclaimed "scholar of Islamic history" and notorious Muslim-baiter has a piece on the attack, entitled "Jihad at Fort Hood" (!), on the Front Page magazine website. In it, he opines, under a huge mugshot of Hasan:
Major Hasan's motive was perfectly clear -- but it was one that the forces of political correctness and the Islamic advocacy groups in the United States have been working for years to obscure. So it is that now that another major jihad terror attack has taken place on American soil . . .
"Clear"? Spencer must be a mind-reader, because Hasan has not said why he carried out the attack, nor have the authorities provided a motive -- yet. Perhaps he was a terrorist, and mounted the attack out of "Islamist" or "jihadist" hatred for US foreign policy in Iraq and Afghanistan. Perhaps he was mentally unbalanced and simply "snapped". The BBC is reporting "that he had been increasingly unhappy in the military", and his cousin has told US media that the idea of overseas deployment had been Major Hasan's "worst nightmare" and that he had been battling racial harassment because of his "Middle Eastern ethnicity". Then there are the internet postings which discuss suicide bombings and other threats that officials say he may or may not have made.
The point is that, at this stage, we simply don't know. So why speculate, let alone conclude? Back to the BBC report:
Asked whether the shootings were a terrorist act, Lt Gen Cone [the base commander] said: "I couldn't rule that out but I'm telling you that right now, the evidence does not suggest that."
People like Robert Spencer are nasty, divisive, Islamophobic bigots who seize whatever opportunity, whatever tragedy, they can to stir up hatred against Muslims and Islam in the west.
I wonder what it must be like to be a patriotic American Muslim serving in the United States armed forces right now. There are up to 10,000 American Muslims serving their country who will now, I assume, be treated with suspicion and considered, by Spencer and others of his ilk, as potential fifth-columnists or al-Qaeda infiltrators.
As one Fort Hood soldier told the BBC:
"They've taken it hard, due to the fact that it kind of puts a negative light on them and makes people distrust them because everybody is going to look at them [and think]: 'Well, you're probably going to pull something like this'," the soldier said. "And it's a sad fact that that will happen."
Update: The BBC website now has added a piece on how the attack might affect the thousands of Muslims serving in the US military.