Should the Las Vegas shooting, the worst act of mass murder in recent American history, be described as “terrorism”? Was the killer, a white American man, a “terrorist”?
Was he just the same as Omar Mateen, who killed 49 people in a nightclub in Orlando, Florida, in June 2016? Should he be categorised in the way of Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, the married couple who shot 14 people in San Bernardino, California, in December 2015?
This is an uneasy line of questioning. The Vegas shooter, Stephen Paddock, did undoubtedly strike terror in the hearts of the thousands of concert-goers he targeted on October 1. He committed an act of terrifying violence. He was a despicable criminal but not, so far as one can discern in the immediate aftermath of the Vegas atrocity, a terrorist.
This has nothing to do with Paddock’s religion or apparent lack of it. It is to do with the proper meaning of words. Terrorism has a very specific meaning. English dictionaries describe terror as a very specific thing, particularly from the late 18th century. The Oxford English Dictionary refers to the rule of the Jacobin faction during the period of the French Revolution known as the Terror. Terrorism then is regarded as “the unlawful use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims.”
Political science scholars generally agree on the broad criteria of a terrorist act, of which political inspiration must be key.
So far as is known, Paddock was not pursuing political aims in mystifyingly stockpiling weapons and ammunition in his Vegas hotel room and mowing down 59 of his fellow Americans. He terrorised the crowd but he was not a terrorist.
The problem is the clamour for Paddock to be described as a terrorist and the fact that many well-meaning people see the American authorities’ refusal to do so as an example of unfairness to Muslims.
The American singer Ariana Grande, whose Manchester concert was targeted by a terrorist in May, has demanded that US President Donald Trump call the Vegas shooting “what it is.” Trump subsequently declined to say the incident was an act of domestic terrorism and called the killer “sick and demented.”
This was taken as proof that non-Muslim murderers get a straight pass. The argument goes that such linguistic restraint would not have been employed had Paddock been Muslim. The attack would have been described as a terrorist strike straight off and the entire Muslim community would’ve been under the spotlight.
Are we at risk of losing sight of the real issues at stake in our turning world by marinating ourselves in bitterness about western Islamophobia? This is not to discount its existence — Islamophobia is very real — and this is not to say it doesn’t manifest itself in various ways but the charged debate over the Vegas incident’s nomenclature is enervating and useless.
The real issue is America’s epidemic of gun violence, a firearm homicide rate 16 times that of Germany and six times that of Canada. America has almost as many privately owned firearms as American citizens and residents. Americans with guns are statistically said to pose a greater threat to their fellow citizens than are Muslims, immigrants or jihadi terrorists. A recent estimate stated there were 1,516 mass shootings in the United States over 1,735 days.
Thomas Friedman, one of liberal America’s favourite newspaper columnists, wrote after the Vegas massacre that all would have been clear to Americans had Paddock only been Muslim. He meant the irony of being able to recognise the threat posed by Islamist terrorism but not by an America awash in guns.