“Why is Steven Paddock referred to as a “shooter” and a “lone wolf” and not a “terrorist”?,” former Primedia news chief Yusuf Abramjee tweeted on Tuesday, referring to the Las Vegas butcher. He attached a definition of terrorism proposed by Rice University sociologist Craig Considine: “a propaganda term used to manufacture anti-Muslim sentiment…deployed only when Muslims commit violence.”
Simultaneously making the rounds on Facebook was this, attributed to one Yasir Qadhi: “Do you know what white privilege is? It is to murder over 50 people and injure 450 only to have authorities claim, within minutes and without any verification, that you are not a terrorist.”
Like Dr Considine, I am in complete sympathy with Muslims who find themselves automatically under suspicion in the US and elsewhere because a tiny minority of their coreligionists have taken to slaughtering innocents. Nor have I any doubt that Donald Trump exploits and exacerbates Islamophobia in playing to his base.
What I do wonder, though, is whether taking umbrage that the “t” word was not instantly applied to Paddock is going to help. Here I side with Sally Kohn, a CNN commentator who describes herself as “America’s second favourite cable news lesbian”. She tweeted:
“Look, we don’t know yet what motivated the shooter in Vegas. If it was political views/ideology, then it is terrorism. By definition. But we should wait for facts. As we should with any shooter regardless of race or religion.”
One thing we do know is that Islamic State’s semi-official news agency, Amaq, quickly took credit for the massacre. It claimed Paddock converted to Islam several months ago and then assumed a nom de guerre, Abou Abd el-Bir Amriki.
Credibly getting its fingerprints on the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history would certainly serve IS’s purposes. Not everyone rules out that the fingerprints may really be there. Amaq has hitherto been pretty reliable, says Graeme Woods, author of Among the Believers and a top-ranked IS watcher. The Amaq he has tracked does not normally want to get caught in an obvious lie.
Whether or not IS was involved, the umbrage taken at Paddock’s not being branded a terrorist will surely be a source of satisfaction for the jihadists. One of their immediate aims, after all, is to promote a sense of grievance and alienation among Muslims living in Western societies. Donald Trump and his nativist advisers and fans are their witless helpers.
So it would be useful to come to a consensus on a better definition of terrorist than Considine’s, one that distinguishes between terrorism and other forms of mayhem that involve indiscriminate or collateral killing and maiming.
The distinguishing mark of terrorism, as CCN’s Kohn suggests, is political or ideological purpose. Terrorists commit heinous acts to trigger responses from their adversary which they believe will work to the advantage of their cause. The responses they desire may range from straightforward capitulation to disproportionate counterterror that delegitimises the adversary.
However you regard their tactics from a moral standpoint, true terrorists are in it for more than personal gratification. Their causes, dare one say, may sometimes even be just. In his fight against slavery, John Brown hacked pro-slavery men to death with a broadsword quite deliberately to terrorise their friends.
A friend in California, a wonderful writer, accused me of splitting hairs when I argued against calling Paddock a terrorist until we knew more. In the current climate, I replied, we need to be exact with our language. From loose language follows feckless, knee-jerk policy.
At this point, Paddock has all the characteristics of a rampage killer driven by internal demons and made massively deadly by Second Amendment fundamentalists who regard Sunday’s carnage as a hecatomb well sacrificed on the altar of Freedom. What he represents is a problem entirely other than terrorism, properly defined.