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Guarding the ranks

Religious tolerance in the military does not trump security concerns.

November 10, 2009

Did Army Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, the accused gunman in Thursday's rampage at Ft. Hood, Texas, commit mass murder because of a mental breakdown or because of hatred for his own country fueled by Islamic radicalism -- or some combination of the two? We don't have all the answers yet, but whatever the explanation turns out to be, we do know this: The carnage is not a reflection on all the other Muslims serving in the U.S. military. President Obama made that point on Saturday, albeit obliquely, when he noted that those who have fought for this country include "Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus and nonbelievers."

Speaking more plainly than the president, Army Chief of Staff Gen. George W. Casey Jr. warned of "a backlash against some of our Muslim soldiers," adding that "it would be a shame if our diversity became a casualty as well."

We wholeheartedly agree with the president and Casey. But it would be equally tragic if the armed services allowed an insistence on religious tolerance to stand in the way of detecting and rooting out extremism in the ranks. It's essential to avoid profiling people on the basis of their religion, but that doesn't require us to deny the existence in this country, as elsewhere, of a dangerous and anti-American ideology that identifies itself with Islam and seeks to recruit believing Muslims. If the U.S. military receives evidence that some of its members have succumbed to the siren song of extremism, it must investigate. Not to do so would be foolhardy. But it must be done in a way that doesn't treat adherence to Islam itself as a security risk. It would be grossly unfair, for example, to subject all Muslim recruits to special screening, as some commentators on the right have proposed.

Nor should Islamic extremism be the only noxious ideology monitored by the military. The Department of Homeland Security came under misguided criticism from veterans this year when it released a report warning that some disaffected veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were especially susceptible to the lures of right-wing extremism. That common-sense conclusion also applies to current and prospective members of the armed forces.

A long-standing Defense Department directive decrees that "military personnel must reject participation in organizations that espouse supremacist causes, . . . advocate the use of force and violence, or otherwise engage in efforts to deprive individuals of their civil rights."

Policing a service member's participation in an extremist group becomes more delicate when the organization is a religious one. But if we're talking about involvement in a mosque where violence is preached -- or in a white supremacist group that calls itself a church -- that's not a private matter. The military can recognize and act on that fact without presuming that every Muslim is an extremist.

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