One of the largest gun massacres ever in the United States happened on Sunday in Las Vegas. At 10:08 p.m. (13:00 p.m. CST), 64-year-old Stephen Paddock opened fire on a crowd at an outdoor country music festival. Shooting from a hotel room overlooking the concert, Paddock killed over 58 people and injured over 500 others.
In the wake of the attack, some media organizations were quick to label the gun massacre an act of terrorism. “Stephen Paddock was obviously a terrorist. But because he’s white, we don’t call it that,” wrote journalist Jack Moore of GQ. While Moore is correct that cases of non-Muslim terrorism are often ignored due to Western media stereotypes, he is wrong to call Paddock a terrorist, and wrong to jump to the conclusion that alternative points of view are Islamophobic.
Terrorism is diverse. Beyond the Islamist extremist groups typically portrayed in the media, there are Catholic terrorists, Marxist-Leninist terrorists, far-right terrorists, and many more. But all terrorism is distinguished from other forms of violence by three traits: it is committed by a non-state actor; people commit it to achieve a political, economic, religious, or social goal; and it tries to create fear. Although there is no formal consensus on the appropriate definition of terrorism in international law, the Las Vegas shooting does not yet meet even these basic criteria. A terrorist attack is in part characterized by the motives of the terrorist. Paddock’s motives remain unclear.
This point is not merely pedantic nitpicking over semantics. Overzealously tossing around the word “terrorism” risks perpetuating the illusion that terrorism is an all-pervasive threat and ought to be at the top of the national agenda.
Journalists and politicians might want to call the Las Vegas shooting a “terrorist attack” to convey its gravity and galvanize support. Labelling a gun massacre an act of terrorism elevates it to a national security threat in the public mind.
But counter-terrorism does not warrant the outsized attention and resources it receives today. According to Atlantic Magazine, the number of deaths terrorism in the United States from 2004 to 2014 was lower than the death toll from terrorism in the 1990s or the 1970s. In 2011, Americans were nine times more likely to die at the hands of a police officer than a terrorist. Issues like tax reform and yes, gun control, deserve to be far higher on the nation’s priority list.
Labeling an event a terrorist attack to indicate its seriousness grants “terrorism” connotations of legitimacy and urgency that the word should not have. “This was a terrorist attack” should not be another way of saying, “This matters.”
We cannot know yet whether Sunday’s mass shooting was a terrorist attack. And that statement does not imply anything about how important it is to stop such gun massacres from happening again.
This opinion does not represent the views of The Blue & Gold or Taipei American School.
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