Farah Nasser: Terrorism or not? Defining the Las Vegas massacre

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Terrorism or not? Defining the Las Vegas massacre
Officials are not calling what happened in Vegas a terrorist attack, but is it? Farah Nasser on two different definitions of terrorism – Oct 2, 2017

He terrorized thousands but don’t call Stephen Paddock a terrorist.

Within hours, police used terms like “disturbed” and “a lone wolf” to describe the Las Vegas shooter.  President Trump said the massacre was “an act of pure evil” but didn’t utter the T-word once.

“The naming of some attacks as ‘terrorism’ and others as other things like ‘mass shootings,’ etc. is almost universally determined by the background of the assailant,” said Dr. Rhys Machold, Assistant Professor in the Department of Politics at York University.  “This reflects the ambiguous and politicized definition of terrorism itself.”

READ MORE: How to talk to children about violence and terrorism

It’s important to acknowledge that one word can’t change the fact that 58 people lost their lives, maybe more.  Fifty-eight funerals are being planned; 58 families are mourning.  At this very moment they don’t care about semantics, nor should they.

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The reason we need to talk about the term terrorism will have implications for how this tragedy will be treated and will shape the conversation that will follow.

Ongoing coverage of the Las Vegas shooting 

It’s a debate has been ongoing, tragedy after tragedy, with many minority groups feeling a sense of unease around how and who we label a terrorist.  It also begs the question, if the Vegas shooter was foreign born, Brown or Black would we be calling him a terrorist?

“That fact that the term is being preserved only to describe ‘racially-profiled’ violence reveals how deeply embedded racism and Islamophobia has become in our language and disturbingly, even in our legal system,”  said Dr. Megan M. Boler, a Professor of Theory and Policy Studies at the University of Toronto.  Boler adds that leaders in the U.S. should model appropriate language in this and any other death of mass populations including the allegedly racially-motivated acts of white supremacists in Charlottesville.

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The problem starts with the word itself and how it is, or more importantly, isn’t defined.

“The only one thing that pretty much all terrorism scholars can agree on is that the term has no universal definition and always a matter of perspective,” Machold said.

The dictionary definition of terrorism is directly related to motive.  It is defined as “The unlawful use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims.”

In the media, most of us as journalists haven’t called the incidents terrorism – and some of that has to do with motive, some has to do with what officials say on the matter.

COMMENTARY: Gun crime is America’s ‘terrorism’

“At CBC we encourage our journalists to refrain from labelling any specific incidents as terrorism, unless it’s with attribution,” Jack Naglar, Director of Journalistic Public Accountability and Engagement at CBC News.

“There isn’t a perfectly formed consensus on what is terrorism and what isn’t… What we think we should to is describe as specifically as we can what happened, then the audience and society will figure out what exactly that is.”

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“In attacks such as the one in Edmonton or the massacre in Las Vegas, there is public interest in understanding the motivation of a suspect. It’s basic human instinct to want to know why such terrible things happen,” said Ron Waksman, Vice-President of Digital and Editorial Standards and Practices for Global News and Corus Radio.

“The use of the term terror or terrorist by the media speaks to more than the people terrorized by a violent act, it’s intended to add context and understanding in the form of what we learn about political, criminal or even religious motivation for the act. What the media and the public shouldn’t do is leap to conclusions about the motivation for a terrorist act based on a suspect’s nationality or ethnicity.”

We don’t know the Vegas shooters motivations but Nevada law has a different outlook on terrorism.

If you look at that state’s statutes, what happened on the strip is a textbook example of it.  It defines an act of 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.”

Which is precisely what happened.


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