Fight on terror at home must speed up

We're back at that old game of winning the hearts and minds of people who want to kill us. Except the problem is becoming a homegrown one.

Faisal Shahzad may have had any number of motivations to detonate a bomb in Times Square, but his intent was harming his fellow Americans.

Before he gained international notoriety, Shahzad had married an American, gained U.S. citizenship and was raising his kids here. Like Nidal Malik Hasan, the accused Fort Hood assassin, he was the guy next door.

For a while, so was Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born former Colorado State student who once led U.S. mosques before heading to Yemen. He reportedly influenced Hasan and Shahzad either through e-mail or his preaching, creating the unique twist of homegrown radicals spawning homegrown terrorists.

This trend raises a disturbing question about how we win hearts and minds at home. Last week, I put that issue to Jim Glassman, who ran public diplomacy for George W. Bush at the end of his administration, and Kristin Lord, who this month will release a report from the Center for a New American Security about the Obama administration's public diplomacy work.

Both rightly concur that we can't stop every attack but that we can minimize the chances. And American Muslims can best do that domestically.

For one thing, they have a strong record of assimilating into the mainstream -- more here than in Britain or France, Glassman points out. The fact so many have made it here helps rebuff the radical Islamic contention that America is at war with Islam.

Glassman and Lord contend that myth has been spread far and wide. Another way to dispel it at home is for mediating institutions like universities or houses of faith to convene conversations among Muslims, Jews, Christians and anyone else who wants in.

Many such conversations started after 9/11 and have kept going. They don't attract headlines, but they apparently are having an effect. When I pressed Lord about whether they really matter, she pointed to Gallup polling that shows no wide difference between Muslims and anyone else in denouncing terrorism and extolling free speech.

But the tricky part of winning the hearts-and-minds issue at home is that technology allows messages from abroad to be beamed in immediately. So, the effort largely remains an international one. And Glassman emphasized to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in March that we're not trying to win a popularity contest.

He and Lord largely agree on that, which seems to be a new wave in public diplomacy. The aim is to expose the conflict within Muslim societies.

The chief internal conflict is the fact that a small group of Muslims is trying to hijack the rest of the religion. That's an issue largely for Muslim societies to debate, but the U.S. can help make that conversation possible.

Social media like Facebook present new opportunities.

To some extent, the Obama administration gets the need for a new narrative. But the pace needs to pick up. Reaching people abroad is one way to reach the next Faisal Shahzad at home. As we saw in Times Square, it can't happen soon enough.

Contact McKenzie at wmckenzie@dallasnews.com.