“Lone wolf” vs “terrorist”: the vocabulary of mass shootings

What does it take to be a terrorist?
What does it take to be a terrorist?
Image: Reuters/Las Vegas Sun/Steve Marcus
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Last night (Oct. 1) a man opened fire on the crowd at a country music festival outside the Mandalay Bay hotel in Las Vegas, killing at least 58 people and injuring over 500. The attacker, who later killed himself, has been identified as Stephen Craig Paddock. He appears to have acted alone: “We believe it’s a sole actor, a lone-wolf-type actor,” said Joe Lombardo, the Clark County sheriff who heads police in Las Vegas.

“Lone-wolf” is an expression used to refer to someone who plots and executes a violent attack independently, and not as part of a larger organization. But the term is loaded, as it is often used (in North America and Europe at least) in place of another label for someone who shoots innocent people in cold blood: “terrorist.”

By dictionary definition, a terrorist is someone who unlawfully uses “violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims,” with no requirement of belonging to an organization, or acting on its behalf. From this perspective, it does not make sense to call someone a “terrorist” in the the immediate aftermath of an attack when investigation are still ongoing, in absence of clear indication of an ideological motive.

Indeed, when asked whether authorities were considering the Las Vegas shooting an act of terrorism, Lombardo replied “No, not at this point. We believe it is a local individual. He resides here locally…. We don’t know what his belief system was at this time.”

But beyond that dictionary definitions, there is one additional, unspoken, condition Paddock satisfies. It’s one that routinely keeps the general public from labelling a mass shooter or attacker a “terrorist,” and has nothing to do with adhering to one or another religious belief system: It’s being white.

In the US, when there are attacks perpetrated by non-whites, and particularly when the primary suspects are people of Muslim heritage, the word “terrorist” is bandied about almost casually. After the December 2015 shooting in San Bernardino (paywall), for instance, as well as after the Orlando shooting in June 2016, the authorities didn’t hesitate (paywall) in calling the acts “terrorism.”

Attacks perpetrated against Muslims, meanwhile, aren’t treated the same way: the bombing of a mosque in Minnesota, for instance, was more commonly labeled an “explosion,” rather than a terrorist act. More broadly, reports on white shooters typically call the perpetrators “gunmen” and often describe them as mentally ill (for example, Lombardo called Paddock “a distraught person”). In addition, the reporting often leans heavily on the shock of the family. For example, Paddock’s brother was interviewed shortly after the attack and reported as being “dumbfounded” by the news: “We can’t understand what happened,” he said.

A textbook example is Darren Osborne, a white, British, anti-Muslim terrorist who attacked a London mosque in June 2017, hitting worshippers with a van: “My son is no terrorist. He’s just a man with mental issues,” Osborne’s mother told The Sun newspaper. By contrast, when an attack is conducted by someone who isn’t white—and particularly when it is someone believed to have ties with Islamic fundamentalism—it’s very common for the word “terrorist” to be floated very early on, even before any ties with organizations are verified.  In addition, in cases of non-white attackers, not only is it rare, as notes analyst Juan Cole, to hear from the suspect’s decent, shocked family—but the family (or even entire communities) often ends up suspected of being complicit to the crime until proven otherwise.

The sheriff’s (as well as federal government’s, and most media organizations’) decision to not call Paddock a “terrorist” can be explained by two common—but inaccurate—lines of thought.

The first, implied in Lombardo’s reply to the question about terrorism—”We believe it is a local individual. He resides here locally…. We don’t know what his belief system was at this time.”—is that it would be necessary for the perpetrator to be a foreigner in order for him or her to be the perpetrator. Of course, that’s not true. Historically, there have been plenty of white terrorists in the US. What is especially problematic, though, is that when the perpetrator is not white, it is very common for his ethnic origin to be noted immediately, while when there is a white terrorist, there is but a trace in headlines that the killer is, in fact, white.

The other is that sheriff Lombardo avoided using the term “terrorist” by leaning on a definition of terrorism that points to a political motive behind the action—but that is not consistent with Nevada law. The 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.

Clearly, this definition is accurate in describing the tragedy in Las Vegas. Lombardo’s choice to not use the vocabulary of “terrorist” must, therefore, be deliberate. The decision is in line with the approach of those who tend to only focus on terrorism—and only call it by its name—when it has a specific, political origin: Islamic. Donald Trump has been quick to use the word “terrorism” when describing an attack carried out by Muslim-identifying perpetrators; consider his responses to the July 2016 attack in Nice and to the one on concertgoers in Manchester last May, for example. Trump has historically used these attacks as evidence for the need to enforce a travel ban against people coming from countries of Muslim majority. Yet Trump did not label the Las Vegas shooting—the worst in US history— as “terror,” referring to it on Twitter instead as a “terrible shooting” and in his speech to the nation as “an act of pure evil.”