Forgiving Political Correctness At Fort Hood On Thanksgiving

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Benjamin R. Barber Democratic Theorist; Author, 'If Mayors Ruled the World' (Yale University Press); Founder, Global Parliament of Mayors

I have a Thanksgiving wish: to try to understand why political correctness is a reflection of important American values, even when they exact terrible costs, as they did in the Fort Hood massacre.

Critics have jumped on liberals in the Army for being more devoted to civil rights than national security for refusing initially to suspect that Major Hasan's Fort Hood rampage that cost 13 lives might have been an act of terrorism motivated by fundamentalist zealotry. Instead, they seemed to favor the knee-jerk notion that he was unstable, perhaps deeply troubled by the prospect of shipping out to a war zone.

Not however, say the critics, because the evidence pointed that way, but only because of political correctness. The evidence hadn't yet been consulted. Meanwhile, better to avoid offending Muslims than to call the kettle black!

There is truth in the charge, but it reveals not the foolishness of political correctness but the compelling rationale that undergirds it.

For political correctness rests on a liberal refusal to stereotype. On the belief that while classes of people and categories of action may be statistically correlated with certain kinds of behavior, those correlations do not warrant encroaching on the liberty and rights of individuals. No one is to be prejudged in their behavior or motives simply because they belong to a certain class or category.

As with the equally unpopular notion that the accused are innocent until proven guilty, the notion that we should refuse to judge people by the groups to which they belong is widely distrusted. Hence the logic of the argument "young black males commit more crimes than old white females, so taxi-drivers are justified in not picking them up."

In our zeal to get the guilty, we may be willing to overlook the costs to the innocent of a wide round-up of suspects or to jump to conclusions about motives based on the race or religion of a suspect. To people who think in this "utilitarian" way, putting away a few innocents in order to make it easier to put away the guilty is a price worth paying.

Yet the glory of the American system is its deep respect for the rights of individuals, which forbids it from sacrificing individuals for the greater good.

Calling out Major Hasan right away as a likely Muslim terrorist would have been easy, and as things turned out, also on the mark. And yes, political correctness did delay that judgment. It may have even led the Army to pay too little attention to the early signs (well before his killing spree) that Major Hasan was being seduced into extremism by his exchanges with radical Muslim cleric Iman Anwar al-Awlaki.

So what are we to do? There are a great many Muslims in the armed forces, and not only is it their right and duty to serve, we want them to serve and need their language and cultural expertise. If we judged them on the comparative likelihood that they might someday join a fundamentalist cause, we might on purely utilitarian grounds be constrained to bar them from service altogether. Had such a policy been in place, the Fort Hood massacre obviously would not have happened.

So here's the tough call we have to make: should the army bar Muslims from service? If you say no, as I say no, then it isn't fair to complain about political correctness because that's just a nasty name for upholding the rights of individuals and shielding them from stereotyping groupthink.

In giving Major Hasan the benefit of the doubt earlier, the Army was merely applying the very American principle of innocent till proven guilty, of refusing to indict individuals for behavior that is suspect only because of the group they belong to.

In this case, it was a high price indeed, certainly not one to be dismissed. But it turns out to be the price of government by law, of innocent till proven guilty, of refusing to ask individuals to carry the burden of guilt by association based on groups to which they belong by virtue of race, religion or ethnicity.

Major Hasan's religion and fundamentalist convictions as a Muslim turn out to be one key to heinous acts that the evidence now allows us to call the acts of a terrorist. But it is our own deeply American convictions that bar us from turning the logic around and concluding that because he was a Muslim he could simply be presumed to be terrorist.

And painful as it is, this is a good thing - even when it is called political correctness and even when we are compelled to pay the dreadful price of Fort Hood. Liberty's price is never cheap.

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