Let’s Define Terrorism

‘Terrorism’ isn’t a new phenomenon by any means, but it has certainly gained prominence in the public consciousness over the past two decades. 9/11 wasn’t the first instance of political terrorism but it is the event that is seen as a point of comparison with every news story surround the topic. And my god, there have been a lot of news stories with ‘terrorist attack’ in the headline.

When these events occur, it has become increasingly popular to take to Twitter to condemn the terrorist and their organisation. However, following the shooting in Las Vegas on Sunday 1 October, a new dialogue opened up – although ‘dialogue’ suggests conversation and when have keyboard warriors ever been up for a healthy and informed debate?

Here is a basic rundown of what happened: A 64-year-old white man opened fire on a crowd at a country music festival, killing at least 58 people and injuring 500+ others. The so-called Islamic State group have claimed responsibility but there is nothing to suggest this is true. There has also been speculation that the gunman, Stephen Paddock, had mental health issues. Political figures, celebrities and the general public have all expressed shock and sympathy.

So what makes this different from previous attacks? It seems that people have been outraged at the way that the Las Vegas shooting has been reported; news outlets haven’t condemned it as an act of terrorism. The debate is now one of linguistics as the definition of ‘terrorism’ is being picked apart.

Oxford Dictionary defines it as:

The unlawful use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims.

What appears to be the biggest issue about naming Paddock a terrorist is that there was no obvious political motivation. By definition, does that mean what he did wasn’t terrorism?

The answer isn’t as easy as pulling out a dictionary and confirming it either way, though. Nevada State Law says:

“Act of terrorism” means any act that involves the use or attempted use of sabotage, coercion or violence which is intended to:
(a) Cause great bodily harm or death to the general population; or
(b) Cause substantial destruction, contamination or impairment of:
(1) Any building or infrastructure, communications, transportation, utilities or services; or
(2) Any natural resource or the environment.

In that sense, the Las Vegas shooting almost definitely falls into that category. Yet, the anger is not solely at the media outlets which have neglected to call the gunman a terrorist, but that this can be viewed as another instance of white privilege. Out of all the tweets on my feed, these two articulated their arguments better than I could try to explain it:

The issue at the forefront of many people’s minds is that, had Stephen Paddock been any other race, there would have been no debate about definitions to begin with: he would have been called a terrorist and that would have been accepted without question. However, as a white man, there is a focus on his hobbies and lifestyle which seems to be an attempt to humanise him.

Shaun King’s article on The Intercept characterises the frustration at how this has been handled: “Stephen Paddock’s whiteness has already afforded him many outrageous protections in the media.”

I agree. No one is advocating his actions but they are trying to soften the blow; excuses are being made for a killer which wouldn’t have even been discussed if he was any other race.

My problem is that I don’t have the time or the space to gather the evidence that points towards these conclusions. It’s clear that the treatment of white criminals differs greatly to their black counterparts but I don’t have the resources to show the contrast. Although I agree with everything that has been said about the media’s treatment of the shooter, I have hit a wall when discussing this with skeptics. Without cold, hard evidence to show that reporting is biased, I don’t know how to argue against their view that this is subjective, that people are overreacting, even though I don’t believe that.

This is where the debate reaches a stalemate. How do we show people how deeply ingrained racist stereotyping is in our news reports, when that’s all we’ve ever known?

I don’t like feeling inadequate or unable to articulate myself (probably why I will never be a lawyer or politician). I know what I want to say and what I want to add to the conversation but how do I communicate it?

Then again, I am one voice in a chorus. And if we’re all saying the same thing, maybe people will start listening.

Best wishes,

Siobhán

 


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