Call it terrorism

Des Freedman

What do you call the premeditated murder of 59 people by a heavily armed civilian? News media appear to have settled on the phrase ‘mass shooting’, avoiding the more incendiary term ‘terrorism’ because, we are told, there is no obvious motive behind the shooter’s actions. Masha Gessen in the New Yorker urges us not to describe this as an act of terror because, so far, ‘no evidence has emerged that the Las Vegas shooter was motivated by political beliefs.’ Scott Shane in the New York Times agreed that the ‘mass killing of innocents, even on the scale of Las Vegas, does not automatically meet the generally accepted definition of terrorism, which requires a political, ideological or religious motive.’

But there is no ‘generally accepted definition of terrorism’. There is an entire industry – populated by academics, government officials, judicial personnel, military experts, security consultants and international organisations – devoted to the pursuit of an agreed understanding, but a firm consensus remains elusive. Lord Carlile, the UK’s independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, reported in 2007 that ‘hard as I have striven, and as many definitions as I have read, I have failed to conclude that there is one I could regard as the paradigm.’ Walter Laqueur wrote in A History of Terrorism (1977) that ‘a comprehensive definition of terrorism … does not exist, nor will it be found in the foreseeable future.’

So we fall back on the definition proposed by the US government: ‘premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatant targets by sub-national groups or clandestine agents usually intended to influence an audience’. This position – designed to exculpate the US state from any involvement in terror – also lends credibility to the idea that, without clear evidence of an ideological objective, the Las Vegas massacre wasn’t terrorism but a criminal act carried out by a ‘sick individual’, as Donald Trump described him.

Many people have rightly pointed to the double standards by which violence is interpreted and reported: when a person of colour carries out a murderous act targeted at civilians, it is more likely to be seen as a ‘politically motivated’ act of terror than the decontextualised, individualised violent actions of the typical white gunman. The trope of the ‘lone wolf’ versus the ‘politically motivated terrorist’ is heavily racialised.

A crime is often defined as terrorism rather than as ‘random’ violence if it has a clear ‘ideological’ dimension: these days, in the US and Europe, that usually means Islamism. It sometimes means white supremacism, but some of the most high-profile white supremacist attacks have been classified as ‘hate crimes’ and not terrorism. It’s worth noting that there have been many more recorded victims of white supremacist than Islamist violence in the US in recent years.

So we have the bizarre situation in which if there is no immediately identifiable ‘ideological agenda’, then there is apparently no terrorism. If there is a shout of ‘Allahu Akbar’ at the scene, then we are assured that the attack constitutes an act of terror; if not, then something else is going on.

But in what universe could the slaughter in Las Vegas be seen as somehow free of politics and ideology? Is there no ideology behind ‘white on white’ violence? Is there really no ideology underpinning the expression of frustration, rage, hatred or whatever state of mind is linked with mass shootings? Is ideology simply the preserve of other people, just as terrorism itself is so often seen as ‘what others do to us’? ‘Ideology,’ Terry Eagleton once wrote, ‘like halitosis, is … what the other person has.’

It is past time, whatever Trump may say, for a debate on gun control. But it may also be time to move away from understanding terrorism in terms of motives that are often obscure or unreliable. We might do better to understand terrorism in terms of the actions themselves: deliberate attacks on civilians that are designed to sow fear, which can be perpetrated by states and individuals, by national and sub-national groups, by people with any colour skin. Without a more systematic and consistent approach to understanding terrorism, specific groups and actions will continue to be singled out.

59 people were killed in Las Vegas and countless others terrorised by an act of violence that, while unthinkable in its horror, can’t be conceived simply as an unexplainable ‘act of pure evil’.


  • 5 October 2017 at 6:33am
    sol_adelman says:
    If mass shootings by angry white guys were declared terrorism, the US govt would be obliged to go to war against the NRA and the gun nuts. That will never happen. It's clear now that the best we're going to get in the wake of all the future incidents like thus are expressions of 'shock', 'horror', a few dutiful mumblings of 'how could this have been allowed to happen?'

  • 5 October 2017 at 7:45am says:
    When I've heard about this massacre, I was shocked, God bless Humanity.

    Freya, UK

  • 5 October 2017 at 10:10am
    Phil Edwards says:
    This is a very difficult and confused area, and going straight to walks-like-a-duck "common sense" arguments doesn't make it any clearer.

    The first thing I'd say is that, yes, there are a huge number of candidate definitions of terrorism - and no, there isn't any one 'correct' definition. But definitions do tend to cluster around three key elements:

    - mass or indiscriminate violence
    - aiming to influence behaviour (i.e. intimidate or 'terrorise')
    - with a political/ideological motive

    Secondly, actually labelling actions or individuals 'terrorist' is a deeply political operation (I agree with Freedman on that much). When the Provisional IRA assassinated Louis Mountbatten, was that indiscriminate violence? Did it aim to terrorise anyone other than the target? No and no, surely - it was simply a political assassination. (Examples could be multiplied. Very little of the left-wing violence of the Italian 'years of lead' qualifies under all three headings.)

    So we have this anomalous situation where the label of 'terrorist' is standardly applied to any form of organised political violence, while the concept of terrorism - if we take definitions seriously - marks out a distinct but overlapping group of actions, such as the Italian bombings carried out by neo-fascist groups. Indeed, as Richard Jackson has pointed out, the textbook definition of 'terrorism' is a good fit to many pacification and counter-terrorist campaigns carried out by states. (The US government definition explicitly excludes state action, as Freedman notes; not all do.)

    Where does this leave Stephen Paddock and mass shootings in general? My immediate response is to say I'd rather avoid the issue by not using the word 'terrorism' at all, as contested a concept as it is. If we are to use it, though, I'd prefer something like Jackson's approach, defining terrorism as a tactic. But it's specifically a tactic used for political motives, which doesn't seem to have been present in this case.

    Having said that, there isn't a hard-and-fast divide between (random, inexplicable) mass shootings and (political) terrorist attacks. The Columnbine shooters left a 'manifesto', and Leena Malkki has shown that many subsequent attackers - in Europe as well as the US - have similarly wanted the world to know their views (usually misogyny and sub-Nietzschean elitism). Viewed in this light, Anders Behring Breivik starts to look like a cross between a neo-Fascist terrorist and a school shooter.

    So I don't rule out that Stephen Paddock had a political motive for what he did - not to mention the broader politics of a situation in which citizens' freedom to equip themselves to carry out a mass shooting is defended and positively celebrated. But is the answer to assimilate mass shootings to 'terrorism'? I'd argue the opposite. Given the politics with which the label of 'terrorist' is currently saturated, surely it would be better - gives society more hope of dealing with the situation rationally - if less neuralgic labels could be used all round: Las Vegas mass shooting, Utøya mass shooting, Fort Hood mass shooting.

    • 5 October 2017 at 1:22pm
      Des Freedman says: @ Phil Edwards
      Excellent points. I certainly sympathise with the desire to deal with the situation 'rationally' and, ideally, to refer all such incidences as 'mass shootings'. But, given that there is no realistic chance of this happening, my main point is that we need to apply the term more systematically than we do currently. That's why I'm arguing that an emphasis on the deed more than the motivation might be a good idea. Given the salience of 'terrorism' as a weapon with which to target specific communities, consistency seems like a good place to start.

  • 5 October 2017 at 11:43am
    Stu Bry says:
    There has to be an ideological element otherwise it simply becomes a matter of quantity. My feeling is that this will have been inspired by little utter than misanthropy and narcissism. I also believe that due to media normalisation of violence both real and fictive this will become more common.

    I expected The Intercept article in the link to contain some analysis of mass shootings and labeling. It does not. However the writer shows his naivety with this statement..

    "Paddock was declared a “lone wolf” before analysts even started their day, not because an exhaustive investigation produced such a conclusion, but because it is the only available conclusion for a white man in America who commits a mass shooting."

    Mass data collection has reached a level now where an individual's entire life can be analysed in minutes.

  • 5 October 2017 at 1:18pm
    Martha12345 says:
    How tiresome. A very confused writing from a professor of media and communications. Is this a case of those that can, do, and those that can't, teach? Does the LRB just publish any old tosh in its blog?

    The professor cites an opinion piece from the Intercept as if it proved his assertion that black mass shooters are labeled terrorist whereas whites are preferentially labeled lone wolves. The Intercept opinion piece does no such thing. Professor - try some real digging into the sources regarding each mass murder rampage (Mother Jones has a list of all from 1981 to present) and then support your thesis with some reliable evidence, not just an unsupported and unsubstantiated opinion.

    • 5 October 2017 at 1:32pm
      Des Freedman says: @ Martha12345
      Interesting that the last two comments are more preoccupied with the Intercept piece on the racialization of the 'lone wolf' argument than they are with specifically dealing with my question about why some events are seen as clearly 'ideological' and others are not. I mean it's not as if the US authorities aren't aware of the very real difficulties in deciding what counts as 'terrorism' - just read the reports of the National Counterterrorism Center.

    • 5 October 2017 at 1:50pm
      Stu Bry says: @ Des Freedman
      I was just surprised as I clicked the link expecting to be given analysis and found nothing more than I would expect to read on a personal Facebook post. Anyone reading the article without the time or willingness to follow the link will get the false impression that the link leads to proof that "The trope of the ‘lone wolf’ versus the ‘politically motivated terrorist’ is heavily racialised."

      To engage with your article I am not aware of anything that could be described as an industry devoted to defining terrorism. Also just because we cannot create an all encompassing standard definition does not mean that we cannot exclude incidents that lack clear criteria. More evidence may appear but at the moment Paddock appears to be a more spectacular version of Micheal Ryan or Derek Bird.

    • 6 October 2017 at 2:07am
      Locus says: @ Des Freedman
      But some events *are* more ideological than others, in a broad sense, and popular nomenclature has a more solid and nuanced handle on that than your account suggests.

      Case in point: I don't recall John Allen Muhammed being referred to as a terrorist, in spite of his last name and his occasional wittering on about Allah. Because he clearly wasn't.

      Likewise, Breivik was clearly regarded very widely as a terrorist, because that label made complete sense.

      This isn't to say that there isn't a problem, for example, with the way Islam is framed (in more than one sense) in this context, in both American and European public spheres.

      But you seem to complain about a general lack of distinction and nuance, while not applying much of your own.

  • 5 October 2017 at 1:55pm
    TMNW8 says:
    Stephen Paddock chose to live in Los Angeles, and to spend his time gambling. In a city where everything that happens happens by pure chance for no reason at all, I have a theory that this evidently intelligent man, with the meticulous mindset of the accountant but with an uninvestigated, deepseated psychological flaw, had come to the idea that dealing out death to random people, for no reason, was somehow what he had to do.

    • 18 October 2017 at 9:12am
      Roy says: @ TMNW8
      That simply won't do since it eliminates the possibility of disputes over the capacity of pin heads to accommodate terpsichorean angels.

  • 5 October 2017 at 2:19pm
    TMNW8 says:
    Oops - I mean Las Vegas. Apologies for my poor Spanish

  • 5 October 2017 at 5:29pm
    Graucho says:
    The Las Vegas shootings certainly created terror, but an -ism is "a distinctive practice, system, or philosophy, typically a political ideology or an artistic movement" . At this point we have no evidence that this was anything other than an individual satisfying a personal blood lust, so the suffix is yet to be justified. As for the racial aspect of the semantics, the many atrocities committed by individuals in the Northern Irish troubles were certainly white on white and correctly described as terrorism.

    • 5 October 2017 at 5:52pm
      Des Freedman says: @ Graucho
      Very fair point but, according to that definition, a murderous form of 'ego-ism' might be relevant. And in terms of 'white on white' violence, you're absolutely right that it is recognised in certain circumstances but my point is how inconsistent this recognition is - just think of the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords by Jared Lee Loughner in 2011.

  • 5 October 2017 at 6:19pm
    RS_JR says:
    There is a simple reason not to call it this: we have to have language discipline or everything becomes meaningless wordsoup. There has been a full frontal assault on language for at least 15 years i.e. only the elitists care about exactitude, dontcha know. Timothy McVey was an American terrorist. No problem whatsoever with calling him that. He fits the definition. That piece of old man rage nihilism and cold blooded viciousness in Las Vegas was a mass murderer, and if you think that is a nicer, less horrific term than terrorist, then there is already a serious failure of the meaning of words and language at work.

    • 5 October 2017 at 10:27pm
      Behrooz says: @ RS_JR
      This is an interesting point and raises a crucial issue. But the assumption here is that Des Friedman lacks the decipkine. Many words in fact have lost their original meaning and terrirism is one of those. Terror at the time of French Revolution was a description of the state and what the state did. It is one of the great ironies that it is now used only to describe acts of violence by non state actors. This lack of discipline is extended further by only describing acts of violence by (Mostku Muslims) as terrirism. What is great about this article is precisely pointing this 'lack of discipline'' which is hardly just about being cavalier with definitions of words and more to do with the power to define. And that is never natural or given but a social process.

  • 6 October 2017 at 3:52pm
    mowaller says:
    Trump must be guilty of promoting, or at the very least acquiescing to, terrorism by refusing to condemn the possession and use of guns by civilians. The NRA is a political lobby group in pursuit of the same cause. By default they are a terrorist organisation.

  • 9 October 2017 at 8:36pm
    conan says:
    I know of two people seriously affected by acts of violence - one is classified as a terrorist incident, the other as a criminal act involving a hand gun.

    It is, in my opinion, a form of angel counting (as they pirouette on the head of a pin) to suggest that the supposed motivation of the person holding the gun should define the nature of the offense experienced by the person at whom it was pointed. That person was terrorised and in fear of their life.

    This is a plea that the propagandist and deeply political categorisation by governments of acts of violence be renounced in favour of due vindication of the experience of victims. If victims were terorised then it was an act of terrorism they experienced.

    To use any other form of definition is to accede to the wholesale politicisation of the legal code so that it exculpates / privileges, say, racist police violence, while enabling a massive state security apparatus and the wholesale profiling and erosion of civil liberties of religious and ethnic minorities.

    And this is an international issue - once a despotic regime uses the 'terrorist' label all decencies are thrown out. Look at the license it has given Saudi Arabia in Yemen.

  • 17 October 2017 at 6:54pm
    apologues says:
    Let's not abuse the dictionary just to make a point about America, white supremacy, and the NRA. How about the concept of the government of Britain when it authorized "terror bombing" of Germany during World War II? Terrorism is a violent act against a civilian population or randomly selected citizens/residents of a polity in order to demoralize the whole society. It is intended, by its targeting of the innocent along with or instead of the guilty, to spread fear through the entire nation. Its moral justification is that the citizens have supported their nation's military that is engaged in evildoing; the intention is to make those citizens think twice about the support they give their government. An exemplary terrorist action would be the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center. (The Pentagon could be said to have been a military target.)

    Yes, there is supreme hypocrisy in the way "terrorism" is defined today so that the military actions of a nation are almost always exempt. We were more honest in the 1940s. Surely the bombings of Tokyo, Dresden, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki were intended primarily to terrorize, and we were more willing to say so. Today, terrorism is often best understood as asymmetrical warfare. The Palestinians simply cannot field an army equal to that of Israel, or successfully target Israeli defense forces, so terrorism is the weapon of choice of the powerless. We are then adamant that the Israeli incursion into Gaza was "military" and certainly not terrorism. And of course, the USA, which has made war on smaller countries continually since the end of World War II, bombing them mercilessly in a way that must feel like terrorism to those on the ground, must be acquitted of terrorism at all costs and in all cases.

    But it will not illuminate these issues to treat a mass shooting of concert-goers by an unhinged gun-lover as "terrorism." That just makes it harder to talk sensibly about issues that have very little to do with one another.

  • 18 October 2017 at 2:21pm
    ljblog says:
    A not altogether pedantic point: Freedman says that there have been "many more recorded victims of white supremacist than Islamist violence in the US in recent years". The link he points to is a report that records 106 victims of white supremacist violence in 62 separate incidents and 119 victims of Islamist violence in 23 incidents, in the period 12 September 2001 to 31 December 2016. While I very much agree with the point that labelling an attack as "terrorist" is a politically loaded act, it's important not to undermine one's arguments by careless use of statistics.

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