I wrote this essay for The Guardian on the Las Vegas shooting and why we treat domestic and foreign terrorism differently.
We have a double standard in the United States when it comes to talking about terrorism. The label is reserved almost exclusively for when we’re talking about Muslims.
Consider Stephen Craig Paddock, the shooter in Sunday’s massacre in Las Vegas. Is he a terrorist? Well, the authorities aren’t calling him one, at least not yet.
This is all the more remarkable because Paddock’s actions clearly fit the statutory definition of terrorism in Nevada. That state’s law defines terrorism as “any act that involves the use or attempted use of sabotage, coercion or violence which is intended to cause great bodily harm or death to the general population”.
Stephen Craig Paddock shot and killed at least 59 people and injured more than 500 others. If that doesn’t qualify as a textbook definition of Nevada’s terrorism law, I don’t know what does.
Yet, when asked at a press conference in Las Vegas if the shooting was an act of terrorism, Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo replied: “No. Not at this point. We believe it’s a local individual. He resides here locally,” suggesting that all terrorism is foreign in nature.
Lombardo didn’t call Paddock a terrorist, but he did label him a “lone wolf”, which in our lexicon is that special name we use for “white-guy terrorist”.
Nor is this oversight limited to Lombardo. Las Vegas’s mayor, Carolyn Goodman, also described Paddock not as a terrorist but as “a crazed lunatic, full of hate”. No doubt many other people will repeat the same sentiment in the days to come.
And Donald Trump, who craves every opportunity to utter the words “radical Islamic terrorism”, avoided any mention of the word “terrorist” when discussing the tragic events of Sunday night.
Speaking from the White House, the president instead called the mass shooting “an act of pure evil”. Rather than offering sensible policy changes, such as greater gun control, the president had other ideas. He thinks we should pray more.
Paddock’s act though is, by definition, terrorism. Even under the stricter federal definition of terrorism, Paddock’s murderous rampage should qualify. The federal code defines “domestic terrorism” in part as “activities that appear intended to affect the conduct of government by mass destruction”. It’s hard, if not impossible, to understand how committing one of the largest mass shootings in American history is not “intended to affect the conduct of government”.
But one reason, beyond outright racism, why white people are less frequently charged with terrorism than Muslims in the United States lies with the little-known fact that while federal law does define “domestic terrorism”, it does not codify “domestic terrorism” as a federal crime. (At least 33 states do, however, have anti-terror legislation.) This is partly out of concern that such a statute could go a long way toward criminalizing thought and trampling on the first amendment.
Federal law does contain “hate crime” provisions, but in our present war on terror, it’s one thing to be convicted of “hate” and quite another of “terrorism”. Someone who hates is considered a bad person. Meanwhile, in the eyes of many, someone who is a terrorist doesn’t even deserve to be human.
What this legal reality translates into is a world where the vast majority of the high-profile terrorism prosecutions brought in this country, the ones announced by the justice department with great fanfare and heralding a safer future, basically never revolve around domestic terrorism.
Read the rest here.