The premature application of the ‘terrorist’ label to Muslims is no justification for the same thing to be done to white mass shooters.
Every time there is a mass shooting in the United States, the country, and the world (out of morbid curiosity), descends into a series of familiar debates. Why are people allowed to buy guns nearly without limitation? Is the second amendment obsolete? Why does the most powerful nation on earth place a higher premium on weapons of war than it does on human lives?
These questions have become a customary feature of a debate which is constantly re-litigated, but one question keeps coming up which, given the fact that we are 16 years on from the events of September 11th, is the most confusing in its recurrence: What constitutes terrorism?
When Stephen Paddock murdered 59 people from his hotel room in Las Vegas in the worst mass shooting in modern US history, the ritual waves of gun-related anger and apologia crashed against each other, briefly and to no effect. The more this atrocity was put into historical context, the more people began to wonder how such an abomination couldn’t earn someone the label of terrorist, and how the term “mass-murderer” could possibly be a strong enough designation for someone who methodically rained death down upon a crowd of innocent concert-goers.
When a killer has a Muslim name, there is little patience for due diligence
Terrorism has no precise, agreed upon definition, a fact which has allowed authoritarian regimes to use it as a cudgel against political opponents. Any real definition it does have, however, must include a political, ideological, or religious dimension. Motive is crucial to determining terrorism. If this were not the case, there would be nothing distinguishing it from murder, and no need for the term at all.
Criticism of the contrast in terminology used to describe the shootings in Las Vegas and Sutherland Springs with that used in the Orlando and San Bernadino attacks misses the point. It tries to highlight the difference between the reaction to violence committed by a white person and that committed by non-whites, but ignores the motive of the crime itself. It is undoubtedly true that when a killer has a Muslim name, there is little patience for due diligence in figuring out their state of mind before labelling them a terrorist, and this has contributed to the idea that terrorism can only be a function of brown skin in the eyes of the public.
The cynicism is understandable. When Sayfullo Saipov drove a car into a cycling path in New York City on October 31, Donald Trump responded by calling him a “deranged animal”. A week later, Devin Patrick Kelley went into a church on a Sunday in Texas and killed 26 people – 18 more than Saipov – in the 5th deadliest shooting in US history, and Trump called him a “deranged individual”. There is more reason than not to believe the extra venom injected into Trump’s description of Saipov was due to his religion, but it does not change the nature of the acts committed.
In the state of Nevada, the statutory definition for terrorism, which – unlike the US Code – makes no mention of motive, was shared across the internet as proof that Paddock was getting a pass for being white. The statute, of course, is lacking, which is why the police did not actually treat it as a terrorist attack. Until motives can be determined, we simply have no way to know if Paddock or Kelley were terrorists, yet we know Dylann Roof, the white supremacist who slaughtered nine people who had welcomed him into their church in Charleston because of their race, certainly was.
Critics are right to condemn premature classifications made before all the facts are out, but are also, for the same reason, wrong to impute bigoted motives when the same classifications are withheld in the absence of information. The murder of dozens of people does not need to be a terrorist attack to be a travesty which merits the strongest public response, and a gunman does not need to be a “terrorist” to become a monster, the repeat of whose actions should be prevented at the highest reasonable cost.
Feature image source: Reuters / Lucy Nicholson