After living here for four years, American culture still seems LOUD. Cable TV abounds with angry heads yelling at each other, while radio and the Internet are flooded with toxic invective. Waiting at the traffic lights I am frequently instructed by bumper stickers what position I ought to take on abortion; whether to spay and neuter my cat; and who I should have voted for six years ago. This openness can be thrilling or exhausting. It’s never boring.
There are, however, significant taboos. A public figure can end his career instantly if he uses the wrong language when discussing race. Immigration is another issue it is best to tread lightly around. And then there is radical Islam: you know, men with bombs in their skivvies, or beardy types planting bombs on Times Square.
Nothing is a buzz-kill for the American media like this stuff.
Sure, they enjoy the thrill of the scare. But nobody wants to talk about the ideas that inspire the bombs from terror of inadvertently saying something offensive about Islam. (Well not exactly nobody- there are plenty on the Right willing to say provocative things, but they have long since given up on being invited to respectable dinner parties.)
Recently a British friend asked me about the “alleged” Fort Hood shooter, Nidal Hasan, the Army psychiatrist who opened fire on a military base in Texas a year ago, killing 13 and wounding many others. “What’s going on with him?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I replied, which immediately struck me as bizarre. It was the worst massacre ever carried out on a U.S. military base, and the first act of terror performed on American soil by a native jihad. Up until this point, American commentators had been rather smug about the possibility of homegrown Islamist terror. That’s a European problem, they said. American Muslims are better integrated. Yet Hasan was born, raised and educated in the United States. He had business cards that read “Soldier of Allah” - a nice, professional touch. He was in short, an American success story - right up to point when he started killing Americans.
This week, a friend in the media contacted me. He was pushing a story about Hasan’s injured victims who now live in poverty, forgotten by the Army and society at large. Injured soldiers are treated badly everywhere - it’s hardly news. But since these were the victims of the Fort Hood massacre, you’d think there’d be a story in it. But my friend was struggling to score any coverage. I wasn’t any luckier.
In short, given the media’s love of sensation, Major Hasan has carried out a remarkable disappearing act. Currently, he is facing pretrial hearings, which have been greeted with a spectacular hush. The major seems keen to encourage this silence. Digging around for information, I found this teensy tiny piece at CNN:
Army Maj. Nidal Hasan, accused of the Fort Hood massacre last November, on Monday maintained the mystery about his thoughts, keeping silent when he and his lawyer had their chance to outline their case.
Lawyers for Hasan brought no witnesses to the stand in the military hearing about the shootings.
Asked if he wished to make a statement, Hasan gave a barely audible “no” to the presiding officer.
The hearing lasted only two minutes.
In fact, I’m not so sure his thoughts are mysterious. Jihadis tend to have a pretty well-defined set of goals. But I digress.
Compare this restrained coverage with the furor surrounding Terry Jones, the weirdo pastor who wanted to burn a Koran on the anniversary of 9/11. Now Jones didn’t actually kill anyone. He wasn’t even proposing to break any laws since burning the Koran is perfectly legal in the United States. But Jones was everywhere; even President Barack Obama waded in, pleading with this non-entity not to burn the Koran. But then Jones was a crazy, pasty-faced Christian, so nobody was going to be accused of bigotry for whipping up a storm of hysteria.
A few weeks later, Molly Norris, the cartoonist who inspired Everybody Draw Mohammed Day, was forced into hiding following a fatwa issued by Anwar Al Awlaki - mentor to some of the 9/11 attackers and who also corresponded with Hasan. Barely any journalists covered the story, presumably from fear of being labeled Islamophobes or attracting new death threats. This was not a glorious moment in the history of the American press. Free speech? What’s that?
Such is the power of taboo. Still, if Hasan’s case goes to trial - and especially if prosecutors seek the death penalty - the story will be forced into the spotlight. People will have to think about what his case means; for a few moments they will have to face uncomfortable thoughts about some of their fellow citizens, who may also crave violent martyrdom.
And then Lindsey Lohan will do something stupid.
Hey, what’s for dinner?
First published 19/11/2010