After last Sunday’s massacre in Las Vegas, questions naturally arose over the nature of the shooter’s act. Was it a terrorist attack or rather a straightforward killing-spree? The question is not just a dry semantic debate but has important implications for how we respond to such incidents.
As usual, the shooting has given the debate over gun control a short-term energy boost. This time the use of ‘bump-stocks’ added a slightly new element to the debate, but this will likely fizzle out soon regardless and give way to other issues, only to spring back into the spotlight after the next mass shooting.
This particular shooting did however draw out the interesting question of how we label such attacks. Namely, whether the crime was a terrorist incident or a mass killing.
Although the shooter’s motive is still not conclusively known, it seems unlikely that the attack was carried out in the name of jihad. Islamic State has claimed to be affiliated with the shooter, as has become their standard practice, however there has been no evidence to support this. In fact, there is no obvious political cause, extremist or otherwise, that Paddock was known to be fanatically devoted to. One clue as to his motive comes from reports that he made a living off high-stakes gambling. Had Paddock been suddenly plunged into financial troubles, latent mental health issues might have pushed him towards a crazed act of violence. However, so far there have been only unconfirmed reports of Paddock’s mental instability and the influence of his gambling career on his actions remains undetermined.
In the aftermath of the attack, critics were swift to point out that the media refrained from referring to the incident as an act of terror. Some suggested that had Paddock been a Muslim, there would be no hesitation in attributing the act to extreme Islamist motives. The Las Vegas Police Department has even gone so far as to state that they are not treating the shooting as a terrorist incident. This has left many spectators puzzled as Nevada State law defines terrorism as an ‘act that involves the use or attempted use of sabotage, coercion or violence which is intended to cause great bodily harm or death to the general population.’
Counterarguments rest on the notion that the term ‘terrorism’ implies a political or social motive. Indeed, in 2004 a UN panel described terrorism as any act “intended to cause death or serious bodily harm… with the purpose of intimidating a population or compelling a government or an international organization to do or abstain from any act”. When somebody motivated by the principles of jihad launches an attack, whether as part of an organised group conspiracy such as in the 9/11 attacks or as a lone-wolf as in June’s London Bridge attack, we describe it as terrorism because the purpose of the attack has some kind of political motivation. There has been no evidence, at least so far, that Paddock had any ulterior political motivation fuelling his actions.
This distinction will probably not be much consolation to the families and friends of those who lost their lives in Las Vegas on Sunday. However, although murder is just as terrible when it is part of a killing-spree as when it is part of a terrorist attack, the motive behind the attack has important implications for how we seek to prevent similar crimes in the future.
Most terrorist incidents are, by their very nature, mass killings. This means that the classification of mass killing should always be the starting point from which events like Las Vegas are first classified, from which subsequent classifications are then made depending on the emergence of information specific to the case at hand. What this means is that, as a general rule, the burden of proof lies in showing that a mass killing event is in fact a terrorist incident. When this rule is applied to Las Vegas, one can see its importance: Las Vegas was not a terrorist attack, not because the shooter was a white non-Muslim, but because there is no evidence that suggests it was. Bearing in mind that a core part of ISIS strategy is to claim responsibility for lone-wolf attacks in faraway countries which in fact have little connection to them, it will be in all our best interests to not become enablers of this strategy by failing to be rigorous with the facts.
Terrorism studies exists as an entire subfield of its own, usually under the umbrella of political science or international relations. This Editorial is not the place to outline the schools of thought and developments within this academic subfield, but the existence of such a category shows that there are aspects of terrorism that are unique and must be distinguished from other types of mass killings. Preventing terrorism requires a different kind of analysis and different preventative approaches than other kinds of mass murder. The existence of a political or social motive suggests that a preventative solution, if there is one, has to, at least in part, be found in social and political measures. On the other hand, mass crimes that fall outside the conceptualisation of terrorism require different, more nuanced approaches: for example, in mental health provision, which is primarily a medical question.
The distinction is an important one. Critics of the media and police responses to the shooting would do well to remember that the label of ‘terrorism’ does not necessarily make an act ‘worse’. Similarly, refraining from describing a mass-killing as terrorism does not imply that the perpetrator is any less deserving of severe punishment than a terrorist would be. However, where they do have a point is in highlighting the media’s politicised coverage of such events, which seem driven by biases prevalent in American society relating to racial profiles and groups – biases which are perpetuated by the media coverage they fuel.
Separating out the two different kinds of attacks will allow us to have a clearer understanding of what motivates such atrocities, and will put us on the path to preventing them in the future. It will also make it more likely that the discourse surrounding terrorism and mass killings is driven by facts rather than racial biases.