*Note: this article discusses terrorism and may be a trigger for some people.
It is impossible to ignore the headlines flooding our Facebook feeds; our television screens; our local news sites; being discussed on the radio.
“59 Dead in Las Vegas Shooting.”
“Breaking: Police Responding to Reports of Active Shooter in Las Vegas.”
“Las Vegas Survivor: Why do I Get to Live?”
The rolling coverage of events, videos taken during the massacre and emerging stories of death, heroism and survival are tragic. They’re heartbreaking. They’re incredible. They’re sickening. And the worst thing? It’s yet another tragedy added to a growing list of mass shootings, terrorist attacks and hate crimes occurring continuously, not only within America, but around the globe. We’ve almost become accustomed to them. The Las Vegas massacre has been labeled the worst mass shooting in modern American history, with 59 people dead and over 500 injured (though the number of shootings in America over the last year alone is insane).
After the initial shock settles, and leaders offer their condolences to the families who lost loved ones, and we hold vigils to mourn those lost and pray for those injured, and articles slowly stop appearing, and people slowly stop talking about the attack, nothing will happen.
The American government will remain silent about why these incidents keep occurring. No tightening of gun control laws will be enacted. No discussions about taming homegrown terror will be had by those with the power to.
Because of two words and the accompanying connotations attached to the mass shooter, Stephen Paddock, that separates this from other terrorist attacks.
We’ve heard them before. We hear them each time a white male decides to go on a shooting rampage and end innocent lives. We hear words like “mentally unstable”; “acting alone”; “out of character”; “psychopath” and “surprising behaviour”. They are characterised by media and politicians as isolated, outcasts and not connected to one another or to the general population. Though at first this might not elicit a second thought, a deeper look reveals a much more complex issue: the repeated white privilege offered to shooters such as Stephen Paddock. His skin colour protects him from being automatically called a terrorist, and prevents very much needed conversations regarding gun laws in America.
The Meaning Behind the Name
The lone wolf label has been applied to mass shooters in America over many years, used to describe someone who plots and executes a violent attack alone, and not as part of a larger organisation. The term is used by media outlets and officials when the shooter has no apparent political motivation behind their attack. It also is used when one key criteria is satisfied: the mass shooter is white.
Think James Holmes, the white male shooter who killed 12 people and injured 70 in a movie theatre in Aurora, Colorado in 2012. He was labelled a “lone wolf” and a quick Google search indicates he was referred to simply as a “gunman” in many media reports. Dylann Roof, a neo-Nazi white supremacist who killed a pastor and eight churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina, was also declared a mentally unstable lone wolf. By using terms such as shooter, gunman and lone wolf and insisting that the shooter was mentally unstable, there is a resulting detachment from the rest of the group the individual belongs to.
People then find it easier to understand and cope with the massacre. It is simply a tragic thing that has happened, rather than the catalyst for policy change.
Before any investigation into his background, motives, family and character was even fully underway, Stephen Paddock was labelled a lone wolf shooter. Before any proper look into his life, this conclusion was made, simply because like with the previous men, it is the only plausible explanation for why a white American would commit such a crime.
Even President Donald Trump, famous for his controversial comments about keeping out the Mexicans, Muslims and refugees and using any attacks involving a Muslim perpetrator to scream “ISIS” and push his Muslim ban, was barely angry.
Had the shooter been of a foreign religion or ethnicity, would his reaction have been the same? Would he have been the first to call “terrorist” and push for tighter laws surrounding Muslims and refugees?
Why Not A Terrorist?
Though there is controversy surrounding the use of the phrase “lone wolf”, it is indeed near impossible to name this a terrorist attack. By general definition, a terrorist refers to “A person who uses unlawful violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims.” The U.S federal law defines terrorism quite the same, citing a terrorist uses violence to achieve political and social objectives.
Without insight into a political motivation, Stephen Paddock cannot be declared a terrorist. That doesn’t mean that the way we frame conversations about these incidents is okay, because it’s not. When a white male attacks, he is blamed as an individual. For minorities, it is suggested that their crimes are representative of the entire population.
Attacks perpetrated by Muslims in America are framed as foreign threats and terrorist attacks before full information about the incident is even explored or released to the public. While these attacks emphasise the threat of the entire religious or ethnic group, conversations surrounding white shooters focus on the fact it was so out of character for them. Interviews with family members are conducted. Police extensively look into just why the individual acted the way he did. They focus on pinning the white man as mentally ill, as if his actions would not have occurred otherwise. It is easy to label an attacker “terrorist” or “lone wolf” – using no label forces us to take a hard look at the facts we might not want to accept.
Calling an attack “terrorism” helps to distance it, by placing it ifactsn an intelligible category and helping to imagine the perpetrator as a superhuman monster. Viewing him as a regular person who needs no particular beliefs, affiliation, or label—or even a gun license—to kill dozens of people makes us feel utterly defenseless.
We fear what we do not understand. We are so quick to shame anyone wearing a burqa and snicker that they “probably have a bomb hiding under there”, yet mass shootings by white males have killed more people in the last year than terrorist attacks in America.
According to the Gun Violence Archive, The Las Vegas massacre marked the 273rd mass shooting of 2017. This occurred on the 274th day of the year – one mass shooting per day in 2017. It’s a violent and unnecessary epidemic representing a problem with how the media frames terrorist attacks compared to domestic gun incidents.
This is not to say that there is no threat from terrorist organisations like ISIS. But perhaps an even greater threat is that of the embedded racism and gun laws in American society.
I wanted Stephen Paddock to be labeled a terrorist. I wanted him to be labeled the worst thing possible. That’s what we have been taught: we have been taught to inject such fear and hate and condemnation into the word “terrorist”; that someone who commits such a heinous act should automatically be called this. We associate this word with acts of hatred and terror, as we rightfully should by definition. We long for the media and officials to just freaking say it. It becomes easier to label it a terrorist attack, than face the reality that it’s so much bigger than that.
But by definition, Stephen Paddock was not a terrorist.
Instead, we should we be fearing and condemning the phrases “lone wolf”, “white male”, “disturbed white shooter”. He is not a terrorist, unless political, religious, or social motivations behind the massacre are discovered. So instead, we need to face the hard facts, and have the difficult conversations. We need to recognise this attack for what it is: the representation of a greater issue in American society. White privilege. A disturbing affinity for guns disguised as patriotism and embedded in American culture. The separation of the white male shooter from the majority, as if his actions are not representative of the group because it’s easier that way. Yet if he was Muslim, or black, or of an ethnic minority, the entire culture or religion would be automatically linked to the actions of the individual.
Like all Mexicans are drug dealers.
All African-Americans are dangerous.
All Muslims are terrorists.
All white males are mass shooters.
It’s not as easy to generalise when it’s about you, is it?