As news first broke of the shooting spree in Las Vegas, police were quick to note that the culprit had no known ties to terrorism. This spawned articles and commentaries calling out the double standards involved in how we label mass violence committed by white non-Muslim men versus Muslim men.
These debates are missing the larger point. The word “terrorism” no longer has any useful, objective application. The word has become a coded, racialized reference to Muslims, and nothing more. The inability to contemplate the Las Vegas attack as possible terrorism doesn’t boil down to a sophisticated analysis of how to define terrorism or waiting until we have full knowledge of the underlying motives. It’s the continuation of a racialized discourse that assumes terrorism does not apply to mass violence committed by white men.
From Anders Breivik to Dylann Roof to Stephen Paddock, what we presumably have are aberrations, lone wolves who lost their way due to psychological factors. Breivik, who murdered 77 people in Norway in 2011, was relentlessly portrayed as mentally ill. His mental health played a significant role in his trial, despite his own insistence that he was of sound mind when planning and executing his attack on an unsuspecting youth camp connected to the Labour Party. Journalists were quick to explore connections between Roof’s troubled upbringing and his murder of nine people at an African American church in Charleston in 2015. And I’ve already lost track of the efforts to conduct a “psychological autopsy” of Paddock.
None of this applies to Muslims. No amount of digging into the backgrounds of individuals such as Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the mastermind behind the November 2015 Paris attacks, or Omar Mateen, the Pulse nightclub shooter in Orlando in 2016, would make a difference. Muslim men who murder do so because of ideology, not psychology. It’s in their religious and racial DNA. That’s why this violence deserves the “t” word and an entirely separate category.
Because it’s widely assumed that violence is hardwired into the ideological framework of Islam, all Muslims are presumed guilty until they prove their innocence, if that’s even possible. Muslims as a whole bear responsibility for mass violence committed by a small minority of co-religionists. That’s why public figures never tire of asking Muslims to speak out against terrorism.
Many of us are working too hard to shove Paddock’s shooting spree into the terrorism category. We should stop. The racial and religious connotations infused into the word “terrorism” have permanently altered its meaning. They’ve generated thick, impenetrable walls that prevent white men like Paddock from entering into the terrorist ranks, even by the rhetorical force of well-meaning activists and commentators. Paddock will never be considered a terrorist in the hearts and minds of many politicians and journalists, no matter what we discover about his motives down the road.
Let’s stop trying to redeem the word “terrorism” by expanding its boundaries to make room for white men who perpetrate mass murder. The word is irredeemable. It’s time to let it go.