In light of the Las Vegas shootings, is it possible to define terrorism in a way that avoids double standards and arbitrariness?
In the wake of the recent Las Vegas mass shooting, Donald Trump faced criticism for not referring to the massacre, which left at least 59 dead and 527 injured, as “terrorism”. This, critics say, is part of a wider political and media narrative wherein atrocities committed by Islamists are characterised as ‘terrorism’, whilst those committed by anyone else, and white men in particular, are not. There is a legitimate point to be made here, but I don’t think that it is necessarily applicable to this particular atrocity.
What is terrorism?
The term “terrorism” is arguably inherently loaded. Hence the old observation that “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”. Certainly, terrorism has often been characterised as limited to non-state actors, or those who use force “illegitimately” in a legal sense. This is obviously arbitrary. Whilst it may be useful to always label terrorism by states as “state terrorism”, it should be obvious that states can commit acts of terror. Had Osama Bin Laden been the head of state for the country of Al-Qaida, it would not have meant that 9/11 was any less of a terrorist attack.
A better approach, I would argue, is to define terrorism as something along the lines of: “the intentional targeting of non-combatants [civilians]with violence as a means towards furthering a political agenda”. This is a value-neutral definition that says nothing about the purported legitimacy of the political agenda itself, and which therefore encompasses state terror and terror by “your own side” (who could also be “freedom fighters”). It also avoids defining terrorism in terms that restrict it to activities by terrorist groups, which would exclude violence by “Lone Wolves”.
It is also a restrictive definition that distinguishes terrorism from other kinds of violence. The fact that violence is not intended as an end in itself, but as a means to another end, that makes the “spreading of terror” fundamental to the attackers’ agenda. In turn, the intent to use this terror for some substantive goal, as opposed to mere grand scale sadism, points to the importance of the political dimension.
Why does this matter?
It could be objected that this is still an arbitrary distinction. Why should considerations other than the harm (to the immediate victims and society as a whole) matter? If someone shoots into a crowd, killing as many or more people than many terrorist attacks do, why should it matter that they did this for apolitical reasons and didn’t intend to spread fear or provoke a response?
A serious response should, of course, avoid playing down the awfulness of any massacre. Still, there is a possible moral distinction to be drawn. ‘Terrorist’ is distinctive in the way that it uses its victims. All unjust killing uses victims as a means to some end, even if it is just the killers’ own desire to kill. Terrorism, though, uses its victims as a means to a means to an end. Their deaths are used to create widespread terror, which in turn is intended to further a political agenda. This is, the argument goes, a special kind of devaluation and disregarding of human life.
It is debatable whether this moral argument is correct, given it rests on having a wider, also debatable, moral perspective. If you’re focused on consequences only, then it’s not clear why such a distinction should have any moral import. Still, there may be a pragmatic reason to think in these terms. The attitude required to commit a terrorist attack may differ from the attitude required to simply kill. Killing for personal gain, or indeed out of passion or anger, requires a level of empathic detachment, sadism, and/or a lack of control. Killing to spread terror and achieve a socio-political response may require a level of self-righteousness that, when combined with the callousness needed to kill civilians, is particularly dangerous.
What matters is prevention
A stronger argument, to my mind, is that terrorism needs to be treated distinctly not because of how we should judge it, but how we should respond to it. After all, whilst paying respect to those who have lost their lives, our primary focus should be on preventing further massacres in the future. The social and policy response to a terrorist attack needs to take a different form from that to another kind of mass killing.
If the intentions of the attacker are focused on a political goal, and particularly the belief that using violence against civilians is a valid means to this goal, this has to be recognised and addressed. If the goal itself is a legitimate one (such as fighting for national self-determination), then engaging more with its non-terrorist adherents may be necessary in order to marginalise its terrorist adherents. If the goal is illegitimate (such as white nationalism or creating a global caliphate), then the ideas behind it need to be combated. Conversely, the appropriate response to an apolitical mass killing may simply be a policy change (such as better gun regulation) or a subtler cultural one (such as tackling school bullying).
Race, lone wolves, and double standards
Having said this, it’s clear that there is a double standard in our society. It should, based on any reasonable definition of terrorism, be self-evident that terrorism is not an exclusively Muslim practice. It should be uncontroversial that the likes of Anders Breivik or Dylann Roof, who both committed violence against civilians to promote white nationalist goals, are terrorists. Focusing on the mental health of a white shooter, as opposed to their explicitly expressed ideological motivations, is hypocritical given the (I think fair) highlighting of the religious and political motives of Islamist terrorists.
Nevertheless, I think that Trump was, for once, right not to label the Las Vegas shooter, Stephen Paddock, a terrorist. Without evidence of an ideological motive and intent to use the attack for a political agenda, there are not grounds for thinking Paddock was a terrorist. And no, the somewhat pathetic attempt by ISIS to claim the attack does not count, nor do the inevitable idiotic conspiracy theories.
To reiterate, this should in no way be taken to diminish the immorality, cruelty, senselessness, and injustice of Paddock’s actions. It also does not mean that it should be brushed off as a random event that does not warrant a policy response. And, if evidence does emerge that Paddock had a Wahhabist, alt-right, Marxist, anarcho-primitivist, or whatever other agenda, then him being a (white) “Lone Wolf” should not prevent him from being called a terrorist.
Blogger, activist and former philosophy student at The University of Edinburgh