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What’s in a Word? Terrorism in Las Vegas

“We don’t know what his belief system was at this time.” Clark County Sheriff Joseph Lombardo, Oct 2, 2017.

Those gathered at the Route 91 Harvest Festival in Las Vegas were doing what revellers always do. But the script would not let them persist in their pleasures, to let them be, communing together before their figures of country music.

What instead transpired were shots, lethal sprays emanating from the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Hotel. This handiwork was carnage incarnate: 500 casualties, with 59 fatalities. The efforts of Stephen Paddock of Mesquite, Nevada were certainly one grotesque example of making America, not so much great again as ordinary. For one, they beat Omar Mateen’s exploits at the Orlando Pulse night club last year by resounding ten.

Thus began the merry go around about wording, explication, designation. The Nevada statute should have provided ample guidance to the authorities about what had transpired: “an act of terrorism means 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.” Down pat, precise, unquestionable.

Las Vegas sheriff Joseph Lombardo preferred to demur from the statute. This is Trumpland, and relativised readings are permitted, adventurous plays in the world of the fake and real. For Lombardo, when pushed on the issue on whether this could be seen as an incident of terrorism, being a local counted. Paddock could not, “at this point” be considered a terrorist; “we believe it is a local individual, he resides here locally.” One can slaughter dozens and still not fall into the neat catchment area of the law on ‘terrorism’.

President Donald Trump was in an even more problematic pickle. It was Trump who insisted that banning individuals from seven Muslim-majority countries was not merely sensible but necessary to protect the United States from ‘Islamic terrorists’. Such incidents of mass terror suggested that he might be looking at the wrong settings.

His words, instead, seemed wooden, disapproving of an individual he otherwise might have admired. (The daring, the nerve!) “He brutally murdered more than 50 people and wounded hundreds more.” There is no mention of Paddock’s background, merely that the shooter was caught with some speed. “It shows what true professionalism is all about.”

Trump refused to deviate from the task at hand, the printed words he had to read, unusual for him at the best of times. “This is a terrible day. We are all saddened and outraged. We’ll learn more. If any criminals are still at large, we’ll hunt them down.”

Then came the remarks of Jennifer Williams in Vox claiming that the white surge inspired by Trump, those narky, indignant wonders of a certain demographic, had done more than their fair share of killing.

Any history of such incidents is bound to be potted at best, but Williams sketches a few. March 2017 saw the death of Timothy Caughman at the hands of frenetic stabbing, for which the killer was charged with terrorism under New York law. In August, James Alex Fields, Jr. pushed the headlines by killing a woman and injuring some 19 others who participated in an anti-racist protest in Charlottesville. A few titbits from a grim harvest.

‘Making America Great Again’ (MAGA) is not merely an enthusiastic project but a deflecting code. The code resists anything that might soil solid flag-bearing credentials, and rules out the initiated as potential terrorists.

Killing and massacres are a terrible thing, but if done under the protection of the Second Amendment, it must surely lack the alien properties of foreign violence. One is killing behind the cloak of the law. If only the man from Mesquite had been a Muslim, then things would have been so much easier.

Shaun King of The Intercept makes the obvious though painful point. “Paddock, like the majority of mass shooters in this country, was a white American.” Skin colour was a perversion of sorts, a type of exoneration, or at the very least mitigating privilege. “Whiteness, somehow, protects men from being labelled terrorists.”

It does, however, go deeper. The legal frame of reference is stunted in capturing domestic terrorism. Drafters are reluctant to net such figures. Randall Law’s Terrorism: A History (2009) suggests the need to consider terrorism more broadly. These might be state-directed. But the notion of the ‘American terrorist’ was more problematic, a tougher sell for the US citizen. Insanity is preferred by way of explanation.

“The problem, of course, with the federal government, is there are multiple definitions of terrorism: from Homeland Security, FBI, governmental bodies that are in some sort of field overseas; the State Department has their own.” But even in instances, as Nevada shows, where a statute is available, reluctance will froth and bubble.

An act extraneous to the country, inspired by a foreign source, is another matter. Empathy is harder; judgement more easily skewed. Besides, goes this line of reasoning, there is little difference in the outcome.

As FBI Director Chris Wray explained before Congress last month, such distinctions might not matter. The domestic terrorist might not be convicted under terrorism statutes, but that would hardly mean the individual would not be afforded full and appropriate punishment. “And so, even though you may not see them, from your end, as a domestic terrorism charge, they are very much domestic terrorism cases that are just being brought under other criminal offenses.”

This, is then, what survivors and those facing charges are left with: a different appropriation, a side-stepping classification that doesn’t rile the patriots or the protectors of the law. And, for that matter, derail the project of MAGA.


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  1. strobedriver

    If owning a gun stopped crime–as per the NRA–then obviously there would be no crime in the USA. If a more heavily-armed police force reduced crime then there would be a significant reduction of crime in the USA. The issue is lobbyists and the power they have in Congress.

  2. Jack

    When a Muslim commits an act that the average person would associate as terrorism, the media and law spokesmen are quick to say is was a lone-wolf attack in order to quell any public unrest and make people feel safe that there isn’t anyone else involved in the cell. The average person associates it with terrorism because the accused is usually doing it on behalf of a cause, it isn’t simply because they just want to kill people.

    With this latest attack, the lone wolf line has been dutifully trotted out, but it remains to be seen what his cause was. If he didn’t have one, then my mind can’t associate him with terrorism

    Either way, its semantics, they’re all murderers and should be treated as such

  3. helvityni

    A lone wolf attack, a dinky -di American kills/injures many fellow Americans and Turnbull takes the opportunity to tighten Australian TERRORISM laws, that’s how the Liberals operate. You got to take every chance you get to make people more fearful…Answered prayers…???

    He also likes to speak of MY government, why not say OUR….?

  4. Jack Straw

    Me thinks Trumps ego will bring in sweeping changes to US gun laws.Howard got only one thing right whilst in power.Trump; ever the opportunist will want his legacy to be full of praise.This is his big chance.If fact it is his perfect storm to show himself to the world in good light.Watch this space.

  5. metadatalata

    American home-grown terrorists are the most prolific at killing in the world.

  6. Peter F

    @Jack Straw . . . . . but beware the grassy knoll

  7. wam

    The terrorist, oops he was not a foreigner or a muslim.
    The sick, demented man was 400 metres from the venue. The sound of his gunfire was the same as I remember hearing in the war movies 70 years ago (come back Lord don’t let H bother you).

    The big issue for septics is not hook/las vegas or the economy for the rich but spending on puerto rico’s minicyclone.

    ps how about cecil healy and the Aussie ‘fair go’. Should bring tears to our eyes, Lord???

  8. Klaus Petrat

    With all respect to the article, I can see a completely different side. I don’t know the motives of the shooter, but I also am not sure to label him at all except brain gone into meltdown.

    Let’s wait and see what transpires.

    I want to talk about Dutton and co. as to who is called a terrorist here and for what reason? It is outright dangerous to allow everything to be labelled terrorism.

    We lock them up without charge (because they are terrorists). Soon perhaps for 14 days because you accidentally typed a search phrase into Google and the AFP is on your doorstep, arresting you for terrorism. Or intended terrorism.

    Be careful to use labels and apply them too quickly. The Nazis were masters at it.

    To me, the criminal attack in the Lindt cafe siege was just that, a criminal attack of a derange mind.

    I just am worried, that we have terrorists all over the place before you know it.

  9. Jack Straw

    helvityni Yes he is a dopey bastard.He’s potentially more dangerous than Trump.I wouldn’t allow Turnbull to be a lunch monitor.He’d come back with a bunch of flowers and bottle of champagne.

  10. helvityni

    Klaus, agree, Man Monis was a bit of a nutter…

    Jack S, with all the excitement about terrorists/ North Korea/ lone wolves/ war equipment, it’s easy to ignore the troubled masses; disabled, homeless, jobless, country-less (Rohyngya)…etc…

    Wam, yes what happened to ‘fair-go’? Cecil Healy would be a good role-model to any leader; he wasn’t even racist, Duke became his friend…what a man!

  11. Harquebus

    In my opinion, mass murderers should be labeled just that. The term ‘terrorism’ is used because, the mugs will gladly give up their freedoms and liberties in the false belief that it will increase their security.

    “The state calls its own violence ‘law’ but that of the individual ‘crime’.” — Max Stirner.

  12. Roswell

    Do those idiots running the country understand how many billions – BILLIONS – they are going to lose from tourism because of their fixation with the right to bear arms?

    As an American-born person I am saddened beyond words over this mass killing. Saddened too, that it is killing the country.


    A very good article, but I do object to this being labelled “The Worst Mass Shooting in US History”. My belief is that this occurred on December 29 1890 at Wounded Knee, when the US 7th Cavalry slaughtered more than 150, and perhaps as many as 300 Lakota people using Hotchkiss machine guns. These were native Americans, but still count as human beings.

  14. Jack Straw

    Helv This is always futile ground for the conservatives to partake in ideology by playing the fear card to implement tougher terrorist laws.
    Roswell If the US can’t implement change on gun laws now it will become an absolute joke.

  15. Zathras

    It may indeed come down to what definition of terrorism is used – it not only varies from State to State but also from country to country – but the fact remains that Muslim initiated attacks attract much more media attention than attacks by others.

    Shooting-up a black Church or a gay nightclub, blowing up Mosques or knifing people who came to the defence of a Muslim woman being abused on a train may be classified as hate crimes but all have some sort of agenda and few are spontaneous unplanned acts.

    Anders Breviek still holds the individual victim record but the Norwegian prosecutors were desperate to have him labelled as insane to avoid pinning the terrorist label on a non-Muslim.

  16. Jack Straw

    Above word should be fertile not futile.

  17. Jack

    Zathras, a hate crime is just a minor version of a terrorist act. It’s the same cause behind the act, its the size and outcome that determines if it gets the T word.
    As for Breviek, that’s rubbish, your jumping to conclusions. Unless you have a link or something to back it up

  18. wam

    opinions and truth are merely as you believe so Zathras believes in the disingenuous nature of the norwegian government to keep the word for muslims.
    richard orange in his book ‘the mind of a madman’ presents facts that suggest Zathras could temper his opinion?

    “He is of course a convicted terrorist. The Oslo District Court in 2012 found him guilty of carrying out a terrorist act. But was his act of extreme violence truly motivated primarily by the wish to achieve a real political goal? I don’t think so.
    To call Breivik “a terrorist” is to give him exactly what he wants. The most appropriate response to this psychopathic narcissist is ridicule.”

    ps the last point should be used against a good few lnp pollies.

  19. Karen

    Jack, looks like Zathras is correct, google – Norwegian prosecutors breviek insane.
    Good article Binoy, thanks.

  20. nurses1968

    It doesn’t matter where in the world you are, it is becoming a dangerous place
    In the Last 30 Days 128 Islamic attacks in 20 countries, in which 799 people were killed and 677 injured.

    However in the good old USA, one person is arrested every 2.5 seconds and one murder committed every 33 minutes
    Comforted in the fact that the blossoming private prison industry need occupants and corrupt judges will do the dirty work
    AND, the USA is the only country on the planet that still sentences juveniles to die in prison

    Terrorism comes in all forms

  21. Karen

    I correct my last post. My initial google search indicated that prosecutors ‘expected’ Breviek to be found insane during the trial. That didn’t happen, he was found to be ‘not psychotic’ during the rampage and convicted accordingly. Must check the definition of sanity one of these days.

  22. Roswell

    Jack, unfortunately I can’t see them banning them now. Guns are too intrenched in their culture and the NRA has too much influence to see it happen.


  23. Jack Straw

    They definitely won’t be banning them but there but there will be change. I’ll put a dollar on it.

  24. Roswell

    I do hope you’re right, Jack. I truly do.

  25. Matters Not

    Zathras from your link:

    The court is dealing with two psychiatric reports: one says he is sane; the other that he is not. Now, just days before the end of the 10-week trial, the authors of each report are standing firm, using identical evidence, or cherry picking alternative accounts of Breivik’s behavior, to stand by their contradictory conclusions.

    That people using identical evidence (facts and the like) can reach different conclusions should come as no surprise. It happens all the time. Indeed it’s part of the human condition. It’s part of how we generate knowledge , broadly defined.

    While facts are very important (crucial) in any discussion or debate, in themselves they are never enough. Historians, for example, know that the availability of ‘facts’ is not at the the heart of their endeavour. The ‘facts’ are like the building blocks. In themselves, they do not build the arguments (or the house for that matter). It’s the selection of ‘facts’ and, more importantly, the meaning(s) or interpretations given to those combinations of facts which is central to much of the social sciences – indeed the physical sciences as well.

    No doubt, people will give different meanings to what is written here because, people are the ‘meaning makers’.

  26. Karlo

    Terrorist/terrorism are just political terms that are applied whenever the killing of a person/persons is carried out. The term is arbitrary and is exclusively applied by the authorities. There are a number of reasons for this approach. For one the word terror is far more emotive than the word murder. Thus it is a weapon to keep the population fearful and thus more malleable to the political directions of the government of the day. There is also the reason that it helps legitimise the so-called war on terror. For without terror, there is not any reason to have a war.Thus the actions in the Middle East would be then construed as a war for terror.

  27. Andrew Smith

    There seems to be an issue of white nativist ‘messaging’, by mainstream media, politicians and related. Unfortunately I was next to a television when Breivik let loose with his ‘lone wolf’ massacre, watching and listening to BBC World.

    Their reporter started with unsupported statements and/or dumb logic within minutes; (paraphrased) ‘it’s suspected the perpetrator is a Moslem terrorist, no doubt Norway and/or the EU will need to stop ‘Moslem immigration’. Soon after mealy mouthed comments when it emerged that Breivik was blonde Aryan local ‘lone woolf’ (no such thing, everyone is influenced by something).

    More interesting was the Norwegian investigative journalist Åsne Seierstad who had interviewed Breivik and without watching again, I recall she compared him to ISIS types through shared literature and beliefs (as opposed to delineating supposed Islamic terrorism from right wing nativist or neo Nazi terrorism).

    Many years ago, John Sutherland in The Guardian wrote a prescient article titled ‘Far right or far wrong’, giving a summary or overview of nativist literature and its top ten list, including Raspail’s ‘Camp of the Saints’ (too hot to touch but later reviewed in main US white nativist journal by a Melbourne academic…)

    However, he missed holocaust denier David Irving, and related, Russian hoax to demonise Jews, ‘The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion’ which is now common amongst neo Nazis etc., plus ISIS and still influences old national socialist regimes in the Mid East. The latter, according to Martin Lee in the ‘The Beast Reawakens’ (the ongoing influence of old Nazis post WWII) states that Skorzeny et al. worked (like rocket scientists did) for the Egyptians on their security service and translating the protocols into Arabic (think also available in Turkish too like Mein Kampf is), for dissemination.

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