The first breaking news update rolled in around 3:30 a.m. on Monday. Twitter was already streaming video of ambulances racing down the Las Vegas strip. Before I went to sleep, all I knew was that there was a single gunman firing off shots in Vegas.
Hours later I woke up to at least five news alerts reporting about the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history. A gunman at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino was found dead on the 32nd floor, but not before killing at least 59 people and wounding hundreds of others at the Route 91 Harvest festival.
“Gunman,” “shooter,” “lone wolf” and “suspect” were the main words used to describe Stephen Paddock, 64, a Mesquite, Nevada, resident. Friends, family and neighbors stated Paddock lived a quiet life and kept to himself. While Paddock’s family knew he had a hunting license, and with it a rifle and a few handguns, they were unaware of any automatic weapons.
Then police found roughly 23 rifles in the hotel room where Paddock’s body was found, and later 19 more at his home. But what’s most incredible is the language surrounding Paddock’s actions and possible motivation. Most articles seemed to stress that Paddock did not have any known links to overseas terrorist groups, and no religious or political affiliations that would give insight into his beliefs. It’s interesting so many articles are drawing attention to this point, but hesitant to use “terror” or “terrorist” when describing the incident.
Just because Paddock lived a quiet life, and had no known ties to terrorism organizations, does not mean we can rule out the term completely when looking at what he did.
According to the FBI, there is no one established definition of terrorism. But terrorism is defined in the Code of Federal Regulations as, “the unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.” The FBI then further divides the term into domestic or international.
When Omar Mateen killed 49 people and wounded 53 others in Orlando, within hours the public was alerted to the mass shooting as an act of terrorism. Mateen openly aligned himself with the Islamic State, who took credit for the attack. The Pulse Nightclub shooting fits directly within the definition of terrorism, so it makes sense to label it as such.
In 2015, 21-year-old Dylann Roof confessed to wanting to start a “race war” when he shot and killed nine people at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal church in Charleston. Yet, none of the major news outlets or officials involved in the case ever labeled it an act of terrorism. Roof was then charged with nine counts of murder, three counts of attempted murder and one weapons charge, but no charges of terrorism.
More recently, James Alex Fields was charged with second-degree murder, various accounts of malicious wounding and one hit-and-run after plowing his car through a crowd protesting the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, leaving 32-year-old Heather Heyer dead and many others wounded. Again, “terrorism” doesn’t even seem to be in the conversation.
Both Roof and Fields’ actions fit into the FBI’s definition of terrorism, seeing as how their actions were clearly politically and socially charged. And still media and law enforcement officials refuse to identify the two as terrorists.
The FBI doesn’t say anything about race or ethnicity in their definition, so why are people so eager to make the two terms mutually exclusive? Today, the conversation around terrorism is restricted to acts by radical Muslims linked to the Islamic State. If the FBI itself stated there was no one definition of terrorism, why does it seem the general public restricts itself to one? People are eager to jump the gun and label Muslims, or other people of color, as terrorists. But when a white person is added to the equation, all of a sudden the conversation becomes more ambiguous and revolves around humanizing the suspect.
Paddock was a white Nevada resident, and therefore not a terrorist — even though hospitals around Vegas are at full capacity and the death toll continues to rise. Sure, Paddock’s motivations weren’t clear, but in what people are calling the deadliest shooting in American history, how is this not an act of terror? How is a white supremacist who wanted to see “white with white, and black with black,” not a terrorist? How is a neo-Nazi who plows a vehicle through a group of counter protesters not a terrorist?
The conversations surrounding people such as Dylann Roof, James Fields and Stephen Paddock need to change. Whatever Paddock’s motivations were, it doesn’t change what he did. And make no mistake; Paddock’s actions Sunday night in Las Vegas were those of a terrorist — it’s time we identify him as such.