An expert explains why authorities may not immediately label mass shootings as terrorism

An expert explains why authorities may not immediately label mass shootings as terrorism
People run from the Route 91 Harvest country music festival in Las Vegas after gunfire was heard on Sunday. David Becker/Getty Images
People run from the Route 91 Harvest country music festival in Las Vegas after gunfire was heard on Sunday. David Becker/Getty Images

A deadly mass shooting at a country music festival in Las Vegas on Sunday night left at least 58 people dead and sent more than 400 to the hospital. The attack is now the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history — but what would it take for authorities to designate it as terrorism?

Sixty-four year old Stephen Paddock, a Nevada resident, is the suspected shooter in Sunday night’s attack. He was found dead in his Mandalay Bay hotel room, the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department announced in a Monday press release.

When asked whether local authorities believe the attack was an act of terrorism, Clark County sheriff Joe Lombardo told reporters, “No. Not at this point. … We don’t know what his belief system was at this time.”

Police running at the scene of a mass shooting near the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino on the Las Vegas Strip on Sunday.
Police running at the scene of a mass shooting near the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino on the Las Vegas Strip on Sunday. John Locher/AP

However, officials’ hesitancy to use the word terrorism to describe Sunday’s attack has, as Aaron Blake wrote in the Washington Post on Monday, reignited a debate about whether or not Paddock, who was white, is being given “the benefit of the doubt in a way that simply isn’t afforded to Muslims who commit such acts.”

The Islamic State group claimed credit for the deadly attack on Monday, but offered no evidence that Paddock had any connection to the terrorist group, and FBI officials have said they have found no links between Paddock and any international terrorist groups.

In a phone call with Mic on Monday, Rick Matthews, the director of simulations and behavior-based training at the University at Albany’s College of Emergency Preparedness, Homeland Security and Cybersecurity, said the wait to determine whether or not the Las Vegas attack could officially be designated as terrorism was appropriate.

“The term ‘terrorism’ is actually a term of law,” Matthews said. In order to meet the federal definition of terrorism, Matthews said, there would need to be two “major elements” present in the attack: The first would be the action, an “illegal or unlawful use of violence,” and the second would be the motivation.

Drapes billow out of broken windows at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino Monday following a deadly shooting at a music festival in Las Vegas.
Drapes billow out of broken windows at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino Monday following a deadly shooting at a music festival in Las Vegas. John Locher/AP

In order to be technically counted as “terrorism,” Matthews said, the motivation behind Sunday night’s attack would have to be “to either coerce or intimidate a government or a society of people.”

Matthews said that Sunday’s attack “could very easily be called an act of terrorism,” but that designation would have to wait for the officials conducting the investigation.

However, others have argued that, setting aside the official, federal definition of terrorism, the narrative of whether or not the perpetrator of a violent attack is labeled a terrorist has more to do with what they look like than with the details of their crime.

As Anthea Butler, an associate professor of religious studies and graduate chair in the department of religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote for the Washington Post in 2015, black and Muslim suspects are “quickly characterized as terrorists and thugs” while white offenders, like Dylann Roof, who killed nine black worshippers at a church in Charleston, South Carolina, are labeled as loners or victims.

Las Vegas police investigate a side street near the Las Vegas Village after a mass shooting at the Route 91 Harvest country music festival on Sunday in Las Vegas.
Las Vegas police investigate a side street near the Las Vegas Village after a mass shooting at the Route 91 Harvest country music festival on Sunday in Las Vegas. David Becker/Getty Images

It’s not yet clear what motivated Stephen Paddock, but a small handful of lawmakers haven’t held back in referring to Sunday night’s violence as terrorism or the more vague “terror.”

In a statement on behalf of the Democratic National Committee, DNC chairman Tom Perez twice condemned the Las Vegas attack as “terror,” and Republican Congressman Lee Zeldin referred to the suspect as “a domestic terrorist.”

However, the definition of “terrorism” was clearly on the minds of many after the deadly attack in Las Vegas — according to Merriam-Webster, searches for “terrorism” spiked on Monday following Sunday’s violence.