The fluidity of terror

12 10 17

When Las Vegas gunman Stephen Paddock killed 58 people and injured over 500 attending a music concert in under an hour late on Sunday 1 October, there was an explosion of debate around the word terrorism, online and off.

Twitter was awash with demands that President Trump apply the term to what has become the deadliest mass shooting in US history.

The same outcry was heard after a white supremacist murdered Heather Heyer by ploughing his car into anti-racists protesting an alt-right march in Charlottesville, Virginia, and Trump said: “You can call it whatever you want”.

There were those who leapt to find an Islamist motive for the attack (ISIS even tried to claim responsibility). Others then used the term “lone wolf”.

Paddock, a 64 year-old white male, like the majority of mass shooters in the US, was a white American. When Paddock was labeled a “lone wolf” it caused a sigh of collective relief from Muslims and other minorities.

They knew it meant the shooter was probably white.

Lone wolves

For many, “lone wolf” is a coded phrase, implying whiteness and not being part of a minority. “Lone wolf” told every Muslim tensely watching the news that night that there would not be collective retaliation or unjustified hatred against them as a result of the tragedy.

A study from Georgia State University published earlier this year shows terror attacks by Muslim perpetrators between 2011 and 2015 received, on average, 449% more coverage than other attacks. The social identity of the attacker was the largest predictor of news coverage while the target, being arrested and fatalities also impacted the coverage.

The urge to label Paddock a terrorist therefore can stem from wanting the world to acknowledge the painful reality that armed white men pose a statistically greater threat to American lives than Muslims or immigrants. There is also a desire to label the attacker a monster, completely alien to the rest of us, rather than a regular human who does not even need a gun license to kill dozens of people.

When the Boston Marathon was bombed in 2013, then-President Obama defined an act of terror as “any time bombs are used to target innocent civilians” before the identity or motivation of the attackers has been established.

So surely anyone, whatever his or her belief system or the colour of skin, who sows terror and mayhem, is a terrorist?

Not always.

Understanding terrorism

The controversy over the word terrorism stems from the fact that it has no standard definition – people use it to mean different things for different agendas at different times.

For many academics and researchers, terrorism is a tactic that needs to be analysed critically to understand the groups that use it.

But for law enforcement which investigates whether the perpetrator can be prosecuted on terrorism charges through a very specific legal criteria, terrorism is a legal term.

The FBI considers domestic terrorism to be:

“The unlawful use, or threatened use, of force or violence by a group or individual based and operating entirely within the United States or Puerto Rico without foreign direction committed against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof in furtherance of political or social objectives.”

International terrorism has a similar definition, but outside the US.

For Paddock to be labelled a terrorist by the FBI, his political and social objectives matter. These motivations have yet to be discovered and that is why the FBI has yet to label him.

Weaponising terrorism

The third, and most subjective use of the word terrorism is as a political label.

Bruce Hoffman, terrorism expert, writes that it is often used a pejorative term with negative connotations “that is generally applied to one’s enemies and opponents.” The aim is to delegitmize and demonize while convincing the general population to support a usually controversial action.

Hoffman adds: “If one identifies with the victim of the violence, for example, then the act is terrorism. If, however, one identifies with the perpetrator, the violent act is regarded in a more sympathetic, if not positive (or, at the worst, ambivalent) light, and it is not terrorism.”

Syria’s ruler Bashar al-Assad uses the term liberally on any who oppose him to justify bombing his own people, while former US President George W. Bush invoked terrorism when naming Iran, Iraq, and North Korea as members of an “axis of evil”.

Lists of terrorist organisations are often based more on a political decision than a tactical or analytical one.

Terrorist groups have consciously been left off lists of foreign terror organisations out of fear of causing offence, or because the organisation is being trained by an ally. Even because they are acting in a way that is in line with the country’s interests.

Inconsistency, double standards and white privilege

Paddock has understandably not been labelled a terrorist by law enforcement, because his motivations are unknown and legal definitions are involved.

However, the difference in response when a Muslim extremist commits an act of terror is blatant, both in media and political spheres.

While Trump has avoided the word “terror” for Charlottesville and Las Vegas, he has been quick to condemn attacks by Muslim extremists before suspects have even been identified.

Last month he tweeted about “loser terrorist” after an attack on the London Underground and before the attacker’s motivations or even identity had been revealed.

Before the London Bridge attack earlier this year, Trump also tweeted the need to be “tough” before a motive had been established.

In one of his more flagrant display of double standards, Trump immediately labelled the shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando last year, which killed 49, as terrorism and used it to push his proposed Muslim travel ban.

‘White privilege’

It seems Paddock’s whiteness protected him from this hasty judgement and afforded him the label “lone wolf” before any investigations into his life had started. Dylann Roof who shot nine black people in a church in Charleston, South Carolina was immediately labelled a lone wolf despite being a white supremacist. Far-right extremist Anders Breivik who detonated a bomb that claimed 8 lives and then shot 69 dead at a youth summer camp in Norway was also labelled a lone wolf.

Writing about the “white privilege” that the killer enjoyed despite his heinous actions, writer and civil rights activists Shaun King said:

“What we are witnessing is the blatant fact that white privilege protects even Stephen Paddock, an alleged mass murderer, not just from being called a terrorist, but from the anger, rage, hellfire, and fury that would surely rain down if he were almost anyone other than a white man. His skin protects him. It also prevents our nation from having an honest conversation about why so many white men do what he did, and why this nation seems absolutely determined to do next to nothing about it.”

The problem isn’t that white men are not immediately labelled a terrorist before the facts are revealed; it is that Muslims and other minorities are.


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