Once again the United States has to clean up the blood and broken glass after another mass shooting. Right on cue, the powers that be began lowering flags and calling the murders “an act of pure evil“. Such has become the predictable response from most members of government in the shadow of these disasters and, as a result of their too frequent repeating, the words have an increasingly hollow tone. The likelihood of any meaningful regulation or legislation emerging from the smoke of Stephen Paddock’s weapons is slim at best; we’ve yet to see anything come forward as a result of the New Town carnage or even the Orlando nightclub attack that had, until Sunday, been the top mass shooting in “modern” (whatever that means) American history.
Even though the words of politicians and interest group spokespeople lack anything substantive or even hopeful, this does not mean we can completely discount their words. Much has been made of Donald Trump (and other officials) avoiding the term terrorism or terrorist in their discussions about the Las Vegas
event. So many characters have been devoted to this issue on Twitter and other online platforms that it defies the imagination. The current thinking for many is that this reluctance to call the killer a terrorist stems from a conscious effort to excuse violence at the hands of white Americans as substantially different from similar acts by people of color. There is the stench of racism about this habit to declare someone a terrorist based largely on their ethnic or religious affiliation. However, what is less clear is how conscious we are of doing this.
The United States has really only known one kind of terrorism and that is the terrorism that destroyed the World Trade Center in 2001. Prior to that terrorism was always something that happened elsewhere to other people (with the possible exception of the embassy bombings in Africa in the 1990s, but that still fit into the Islamist terror mold). If we are to accept the 9/11 Commission Report, the people who carried out the attacks were Arab men compelled by an Islamist ideology. That is the origin of our country’s relationship with the idea of terrorism. Americans only have one frame of reference when it comes to terrorism and many can only call someone a terrorist if they can tick those boxes. This is not an excuse for not calling a spade a spade, but it is a speculation on why American law enforcement, government and the public seem to have drawn a distinction between horrible acts of criminality (what happened in Las Vegas) and “actual” terrorism.
Contrast this with many countries outside the US. For much of the 20th century Great Britain faced the specter of terrorist attacks from groups affiliated with the IRA. Assassinations, kidnappings and car bombs were part of their reality. Colombia experienced decades of narco-terrorism at the hands of drug cartels vying for power and influence. Spain has had the ETA and even Canada has experienced fits of internal terrorism, mostly during the 1960s. The United States has not experienced any prolonged period of domestic terrorism since the Civil War and has had virtually no external acts of terrorism since the War of 1812.* As a result, the American public has had no other frame of reference other than the Islamist.
This lack of diversity in terrorism, in many ways, is a good thing as it has insulated the country from the ravages of large-scale insurrection. It has however also narrowed Americans’ perspective by channeling attention and directing effort towards thwarting only one specific brand of terrorism at the expense of protecting against far greater acts of terrorism that are inaccurately labeled “lone wolf” attacks, the perpetrators of which tend to be white males with little to no criminal behavior on record. They are also Americans, either lifelong citizens or, less frequently, naturalized citizens. In other words, they nearly always lend the lie to the established image of what a terrorist is. When Americans think of terrorism they envision acts like those seen in France and England; they can be attributed to Islamic State radicalization, not a sudden explosion of random gunfire from the darkness by a retired accountant in Nevada or a hate-filled 20-something in South Carolina. This, however, is the face of terrorism in the United States, a face many in the country don’t want to believe capable of mass murder for the simple reason that those faces are like their own. Too many Americans do not want the label of terrorist to apply across race, religion and culture, but it should.
In a country that has not had a major foreign terrorist event since 11 September, we tend to forget that terrorist attacks do not have to originate from some distant mountain hideout or be the product of a vast international conspiracy. We want to believe that there is a network responsible, a group of people that can be punished or at least monitored so as to stop future attacks. This is what 9/11 was and this is what is burned into the American psyche as a real terrorist attack. Terrorist attacks can be prevented if enough money and technology is thrown at it because there are many moving parts, phone calls, email, people communicating and resources that can be tracked. This is not the reality. The spectacular success of a 9/11 would be difficult to replicate more than 15 years later, but a spontaneous shooting carried out with little or no outside support is unstoppable. Americans do not want to think of terrorism as unavoidable, so the label is reserved for very specific situations that have an international element. Crime, as heinous and unpleasant as it can be sometimes, can be rationalized as a byproduct of society and so is the prefered term by a cautious mainstream media and politically motivated government.
At the end of the day, this meditation is not about gun control (that will appear in the coming days) or about what could have been done or what should be done in the future. It’s not even about the pathetic response offered by Donald Trump in the hours and days after the Las Vegas attack, as was my original intention.† This was an examination of why this country is so averse to ascribing the label terrorist to all but the perceived outsider. It is about language and how language can be used to obscure truths or at least protect us from the unimaginable.
* I am fully cognizant that this statement may be seen as ignoring the century of terrorism Black Americans faced after the Civil War and indeed the antebellum period of American history. This is not my intention. I would like to stress that my definition of terrorism in this piece is limited to organized paramilitary efforts against established governments.
† I have often refered to Donald Trump, not by his official title which I still refuse to do, as “The Great White Hope” for his success in channeling white anger and frustration into personal power. Even though this piece does not focus upon his words or lack of words, I felt the title should remain unchanged as white Americans use the word terrorism as a way of preserving hope that threats to their security and livelihoods can be neutralized — terrorists do not look like us, therefore we can spot them and remove the threat. If white America started examining white terrorists with the same keenness with which it examines foreign terrorists, it would have to acknowledge that the greatest threat comes not from Iraq, Syria, Somalia or even Saudi Arabia, but from within its own ranks.