At least 59 people were killed and 257 injured when a gunman opened fire on a music festival crowd at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino in Las Vegas in what is now the deadliest shooting in United States history. The attacker has been identified as Stephen Paddock, and at the time of writing, no motive has been identified.
The narrative has centred on mental health and gun control — key attributes of the discourse when an attack is carried it out in the west by a white male. The word “terror” has been deliberately avoided, as authorities say that no connection to international terror groups has thus far been established. The Islamic State, however, was quick to claim responsibility for the attack, calling Paddock “a soldier of the Islamic State.” “The Las Vegas attacker is a soldier of the Islamic State in response to calls to target coalition countries,” the terror group said. US authorities have denied the claim — and rightfully so.
It’s worth noting that in several other incidents of terror on US soil, and the west at large, the word “terror” is very easily evoked — by both the media and US authorities — when the perpetrator of the attack is Muslim. In such cases, even if there is no clear link between a terrorist group and the perpetrator — i.e, no evidence of coordination, direction or even contact — the media and authorities use the perpetrator’s faith and supposed radicalisation to justify the use of the word “terror.”
Terrorism is defined as “the use of violence, especially murder and bombing, in order to achieve political aims or to force a government to do something” — with the key attribute being a political objective. Four major waves of terrorism since the 1880s are largely recognised: the anarchists; anti-colonial activists; leftists around the time of the Vietnam War; and since 1979, religious zealots and organisations. All waves have had their own political context and objectives, and the current wave of religious-inspired fundamentalist militant groups use religion to further very clear and direct political objectives. They have a vast machinery employed in the pursuit of this objective, including recruiting and training fighters who carry out attacks that meet very specific political goals.
This criteria of a political objective, however, has been increasingly compromised when defining acts of violence as terrorism. In several cases, attacks that fit more aptly into the paradigm of mental illness — i.e. random acts of violence with no clear agenda — are labelled as acts of terror solely on the basis of the identity of the perpetrator.
Recent examples include the 2014 Queens hatchet attack, when Zale H. Thompson attacked four New York City Police Department (NYPD) officers on a crowded sidewalk in the neighborhood of Queens, New York City. After investigators discovered that Thompson was a recent Muslim convert, the attack was formally classified as an act of terrorism. No formal link to any terror group was established, and authorities used the fact that Thompson has searched websites of terror groups such as al-Qaeda, al-Shabaab, and the Islamic State as key examples of radicalisation. The fact that Thompson had made a number of comments against the government, whites, injustices in American society, oppression abroad, and the Western world in general were seen as secondary to his Muslim faith. The discourse of ‘mental illness’ — which most certainly would have been the narrative if Thompson hadn’t been a recent convert — was entirely avoided.
The 2015 San Bernardino attack, 14 people were killed and 22 others were seriously injured in an attack consisting of a mass shooting and an attempted bombing in California, is another example of the vagueness of the word “terror.” The perpetrators, Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, were described by authorities as “homegrown violent extremists” inspired by foreign terrorist groups. They were not directed by such groups and were not part of any terrorist cell or network. Again, despite there being no coordination or contact with terror groups, the attack was classified as a terror attack.
The 2016 Orlando nightclub shooting was the deadliest terror attack on US soil till Sunday’s Las Vegas shooting. Omar Mateen, a 29-year-old security guard, killed 49 people and wounded 58 others in a gay nightclub in Orlando. In a 9-1-1 call shortly after the shooting began, Mateen swore allegiance to the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and said the shooting was “triggered” by the U.S. killing of Abu Waheeb in Iraq the previous month. That fact, along with Mateen’s identity, led to the classification of the attack as a terror attack, although components of a hate crime — where a gay nightclub was deliberately targeted — is an equally important but overlooked context.
On the contrary, the Charleston shooting just a year earlier — where a 21 year old white supremacist Dylann Roof killed nine people during a prayer service at a black Church — was never described as terrorism, despite Roof outlining his motive as the desire to start a race war and openly espousing racial hatred in both a website manifesto published before the shooting and a journal written from jail afterwards.
Most recently, in 2016, a terrorist vehicle-ramming and stabbing attack occurred at Ohio State University. The attacker, Somali refugee Abdul Razak Ali Artan, was shot and killed. Again, the narrative focused on terrorism, although no evidence of a link between Artan and any terror group existed. Law authorities said that Artan was inspired by terrorist propaganda from the Islamic State, and the group was quick to claim the attack.
The word terrorism therefore is used to describe attacks even when there is no evidence of link with an organised terror group, and in cases where the perpetrator is Muslim, there is no attempt to try and understand his/her mental state. Terrorism and radicalisation is enough of an explanation. In such cases, even when no direct link exists, the Islamic State’s claim of the attack is used to justify the use of the word terror.
On the other hand, when the perpetrator of similar violence — mass shootings, using a vehicle to ram into pedestrians, etc — is a white American male, the narrative almost exclusively focuses on the attackers’ mental health. Media reports delve into the attackers’ personality, with reporters speaking to his/her friends, family members, counselors, teachers to gain an insight into the perpetrator’s troubled head. The lack of evidence establishing a link with terror groups is used to justify not describing the attack as “terrorism”, and any attempts by the Islamic State to claim such as attack as their own is categorically dismissed.
Recent examples include the 2016 Dallas sniper attack, when a military veteran killed five police officers during a demonstration against fatal police shootings; the 2015 Colorado Springs attack where three people were killed and nine wounded when a gunman opened fire at a Planned Parenthood clinic; the 2015 Roseburg attack where ten people were shot dead at Umpqua Community College in southern Oregon; the 2015 Charleston shooting where nine people were shot dead at a historic black Church, and police arrested Dylann Storm Roof, a white supremacist; the 2014 Marysville shooting where four people died in a high school cafeteria; the 2014 Isla Vista shooting where a college student killed six people and then committed suicide.
The list goes on… as statistics show that white American men are in fact a bigger threat than Muslim foreigners, with a majority of mass shootings and bombings on US soil being carried out by the former. However, the identity of the shooter — that of a white American male — is enough to prevent the use of the word terrorism, with authorities and the media making no far fetched religious or political connections. If the attacker is Muslim, the narrative is flipped.
In fact, before the identity of the Las Vegas shooter was established, many were describing Sunday’s attack as an act of terrorism, and hypothesising that the attacker was Muslim. This key distinction in identity was the defining line between an act of terror and that of mental illness.
Before all the facts emerged, a conservative Las Vegas radio personality, Wayne Allyn Root took to Twitter to tell his thousands of followers: “This is real thing. Clearly coordinated Muslim terror attack.”
As the identity of the attacker emerged — that of a white American male — the narrative shifted from terror to mental illness.
In all fairness, the Las Vegas shooting does not meet the definitions of terror, and hence, US President Donald Trump, the media and authorities are all right in avoiding the use of the term. Terror requires a political, ideological or religious motive, and should include evidence of direction or contact from an organised terror group.
The politicisation of the term, however, has compromised this definition, with an attacker’s Muslim identity now being the sole criteria for use of the term. Attackers that have had no link with any terror group, have questionable religious, ideological or political motives, and fit more neatly into the paradigm of violence and mental illness, are definitively labelled as terrorists solely because of their Muslim faith.
There needs to be clarity on the use of the term. Traditionally, the presence of a political motive has been the defining feature for use of the term — and political motive carries with it direction from organised political groups. Many of the attacks being referred to as “terrorism” formally by US and world authorities do not meet this basic criteria, and fall more neatly within the mental illness paradigm.
The effort shouldn’t be to demand that authorities and the media describe the Las Vegas shooting as an act of terrorism, but rather that they are as cautious with the term when reporting on or investigating similar attacks by perpetrators that happen to be Muslim.
(This article first appeared in The Citizen)