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OPINION: In light of Vegas, how do we define who’s a terrorist?

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Stephen Paddock shot and killed 58 people when he opened fire on a country music concert in Las Vegas on Oct. 2, 2017.

After a gunman killed 58 individuals at a concert in Las Vegas last week, the public debated whether the shooter should be labeled as a terrorist. But how should we decide who is a “terrorist?” Opinion Editor Zach Gheen explains, and he says not all mass violence is the same.

Sunday, Oct. 2 marked the worst mass shooting in modern American history. The gunman, Stephen Paddock, fired at 22,000 concertgoers from his hotel room at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino. 58 individuals were killed, and nearly 500 were injured.

In the wake of this attack, Americans were left confused. Why? Why attack so many innocent people? What would motivate an individual to do something so terrible? In the wake of the attack, many assumed this was the work of a terrorist. With motive unclear, many erroneously labelled the attack as an act of Islamic terrorism. This unfounded claim was also pushed by the so-called Islamic State, claiming Paddock as a recent convert to Islam. Paddock was known to friends and family as a frequent gambler and drinker, hardly the profile of a devout religious follower.

While some attempted to paint Paddock as a fighter representing IS, others stressed that he was a terrorist of a different variety, one who represents the double standard between white men and the rest of society. It is difficult to deny this double standard when President Donald Trump is willing to label an act as terrorism before any significant details are released, as was the case with the Sept. 15 attacks in London.

With so many conflicting ideas and conspiracy theories floating around, it is imperative to sit down and hash out exactly what we mean when we say the word “terrorist.” Does it simply refer to any massive, indiscriminate violence? Does it matter what the offender was motivated by? An effective, working definition has to be made.

In the U.S., legal definitions of terrorism vary from state to state. Nevada 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, or cause substantial destruction, contamination or impairment of any building or infrastructure, communications, transportation, utilities or services; or any natural resource or the environment.” Note that the political motivation of the offender is not considered at all in this definition.

Contrast this definition by the one offered in Ohio law. Ohio law states that an act of terrorism must intend to either intimidate or coerce a civilian population, influence the policy of any government by intimidation or coercion or affect the conduct of any government by the act that constitutes the offense. Political motivation takes the forefront of this definition.

With such varying legal definitions of terrorism, it is ineffective to cite state law in order to define terrorism. A definition is needed that transcends state boundaries.

Terrorism must be approached conceptually. Not every act of mass violence is the same. Scholarly definitions of terrorism often state that an act of terrorism must have a political or social goal in order to be labelled as terrorism.

This conceptualization matters. Not all instances of mass violence are the same. In the case of Paddock, we have no idea what his motivation or ideology was, or if he even had one. Compare this with the case of Dylann Roof, who killed nine members of Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. He was charged with nine counts of murder and a firearms charge. Members of the church recall Roof rattling off racist terms in the carnage. This act of white supremacy matches our scholarly conceptualization of terrorism. Notice what charge is missing from his record. Roof received no legal charge of terrorism, despite being the poster child for social and political violence.

At this point in time, the only thing that connects the actions of Paddock and Roof are the fact they each killed several people with a firearm. We can make no definitive claim as to whether Paddock is a terrorist unless we know why he decided to do what he did. Roof has been forthcoming about his motivations.

This distinction matters because it can affect how an act is investigated. In the case of the San Bernadino shootings, investigators were searching for financial or social connections to groups like IS. While the shooters seem to be self-radicalized, there is at least some indirect connection to larger groups. The same connection cannot be made at this point in time in relation to Paddock. Investigators are at a loss for possible motivation and relationship to larger groups or ideologies. To be clear, the fact that San Bernadino shooters were Muslims does not, on its own, mean it was act of terrorism. Just like Paddock, perpetrators of mass violence can be without any political or social motivation.

If we want to effectively address any social issue, we have to agree on what the issue even is before we begin to make any substantive progress. Legal definitions are insufficient. A state line is irrelevant to the nature of the act. Conceptually, terrorism must have some sort of social or political goal. That is what separates it from other acts of mass violence. This separation has real-world consequences, and we cannot ignore those as we seek to understand the issues we face.

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