Some may disagree, but I think we have reached the point where we can say that journalists in the mainstream press are going to have trouble keeping the religion angle out of the coverage of the Fort Hood trial of U.S. Army psychiatrist Major Nidal Hasan.
It will be hard to stay faith-free, now that Hasan wants to be granted the death penalty -- to die the death of a martyr. He also has offered his apologies that he didn't do a better job of representing his holy cause during his act of what the White House at one point called "workplace violence."
Hasan, of course, has stated that his attack on his Army colleagues at Fort Hood was an act to protect other Muslims, an act carried out after his own solitary preparations to act on what he believed were his duties as a Muslim. It's crucial to stress the degree to which he stood apart from other Muslims, other than some contacts on the Internet.
Nevertheless, it's hard to talk about his motives without getting into the religious details of the life of this troubled believer, especially since Hasan is acting as his own lawyer and spokesperson.
But Reuters, among others, is giving it a try. Here's a key chunk of one report from the courtroom:
Hasan, who opened fire on unarmed soldiers days before he was to be deployed to Afghanistan, also told the jury he switched sides in what he called America's war on Islam, saying, "I was on the wrong side." He has previously said he was protecting fellow Muslims from imminent threat.
He spoke quietly from his wheelchair, taking off a green knit cap when the court was in session.
The standby defense team wants to avoid being forced by the court to help Hasan achieve the death penalty, calling such a goal "repugnant to defense counsel and contrary to what our professional obligations are."
At this point, it would really help to explain to readers why Hasan wants to die, while the representatives of the military want him to live. Why do I think that?
For me, the key issue in the current coverage is whether journalists need to remind readers of an element of the story that has been covered by some newsrooms, but has been allowed to fade into the background. I am referring to the 2007 lecture, given by Hasan more than a year before the massacre, in which he warned that there would be "adverse affects" if the U.S. military insisted on sending its own Muslim soldiers into combat zones where they could be asked to fight other Muslims.
That's a crucial detail, along with the fact that the FBI found that Hasan had -- as the Reuters report does briefly mention -- "exchanged emails with Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S.-born cleric linked to al Qaeda's Yemen-based wing."
Why bring up Hasan's fateful remarks about his opposition to fighting his brother Muslims? Because this content is at the heart of (a) his own logic in his partial defense and (b) it shows the degree to which his superiors knew the state of his mind, long before he blazed into action.
Here's a key slice of a 2009 Washington Post report about that lecture:
The title of Hasan's PowerPoint presentation was "The Koranic World View As It Relates to Muslims in the U.S. Military." It consisted of 50 slides. In one slide, Hasan described the presentation's objectives as identifying "what the Koran inculcates in the minds of Muslims and the potential implications this may have for the U.S. military."
He also sought to "describe the nature of the religious conflicts that Muslims" who serve in the U.S. military may have and to persuade the Army to identify these individuals.
Other slides delved into the history of Islam, its tenets, statistics about the number of Muslims in the military, and explanations of "offensive jihad," or holy war. Another slide suggested ways to draw out Muslim troops: "It must be hard for you to balance Islamic beliefs that might be conflicting with current war; feelings of guilt; Is it what you expected."
Hasan's presentation lasted about an hour. It is unclear whether he read out loud every point on each slide. If typical procedures were followed, his adviser would have supervised the development of his project, said people familiar with the practice.
So it appears likely that his advisor supervised a public report that, in the slides, made clear references to issues linked to Osama bin Laden, the Taliban, suicide bombers and Iran.
Under a slide titled "Comments," he wrote: "If Muslim groups can convince Muslims that they are fighting for God against injustices of the 'infidels'; ie: enemies of Islam, then Muslims can become a potent adversary ie: suicide bombing, etc." [sic]
The last bullet point on that page reads simply: "We love death more then [sic] you love life!"
Under the "Conclusions" page, Hasan wrote that "Fighting to establish an Islamic State to please God, even by force, is condoned by the Islam." ...
Will Hasan reference some of these concepts in his summary remarks to those judging him? I think that is highly likely.
Reporters may as well start covering the many, many religion angles in this story now. Why avoid them, if Hasan is so anxious to discuss them?