In light of the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history, by a 64 year-old white man whose political or religious motivation, if any, remains unknown, I’ve seen much of this kind of thing on social media:
Only in America can whiteness prevent the man who conducted the deadliest mass shooting in American history from being called a terrorist.
— Shaun King (@ShaunKing) October 2, 2017
White Supremacy is when a white feller commits the greatest mass shootin’ in American history and racists refuse to call it “terrorism.”
— Tea Pain (@TeaPainUSA) October 3, 2017
Because when you want a nuanced and informed discussion of legal issues and systemic racism, you turn to Twitter.
Huffpost explains why law enforcement officials are avoiding the T-word for the time being:
There’s a reason that law enforcement authorities are hesitant to label an attack like the one in Las Vegas as terrorism. Specific federal statutes target international terrorism and acts associated with groups that the U.S. government has labeled as foreign terrorist organizations. But there’s no specific federal statute aimed at acts of domestic terrorism, meaning acts inspired or carried out on behalf of domestic extremist organizations. Some federal laws are aimed at particular acts that might be carried out for terrorist purposes, like hijacking planes or assassinating government officials, but mass shootings are not on that list.
So had Stephen Paddock lived, it’s unlikely that he would have faced federal terrorism charges. And unless authorities turn up evidence that his attack was motivated by hatred for a specific racial group ― which is unlikely, given that he fired indiscriminately into a crowd of thousands ― there’s a good chance he wouldn’t have faced any federal charges at all.
…it’s not clear the Las Vegas massacre would qualify as an act of domestic terrorism. There is a federal definition of the term ― yes, even though there isn’t a charge. An act of domestic terrorism must be intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population, to influence a government policy by intimidation or coercion, or to affect the conduct of government by mass destruction, assassination or kidnapping. We don’t know yet if Paddock had any of those goals in mind.
There is a Nevada state law which may define the Vegas massacre as terrorism, but not a federal one. The ACLU, notably, is wary of what would actually be targeted by a specific law against “domestic terrorism”:
In the U.S., there’s still a great deal of reluctance to create a criminal charge of domestic terrorism.
“It’s an incredibly broad label,” Hina Shamsi, director of the national security project at the American Civil Liberties Union, told NPR in August following the white nationalist rally car attack in Charlottesville, Virginia.
“There’s a real danger of the government criminalizing ideology, theology and beliefs rather than focusing on specific criminal acts,” she said.
According to Shamsi, the ACLU opposes any such law, because it believes it infringes on free speech and religion and could be politicized and used against groups like anti-war groups or environmental activists.
The FBI has specific legal criteria it uses to define international terrorism, domestic terrorism, and the federal crime of terrorism. To be terrorist, an act must appear to intend to “intimidate or coerce a civilian population; to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping.” The federal offense is defined as a criminal act “calculated to influence or affect the conduct of government by intimidation or coercion, or to retaliate against government conduct.”
In political rhetoric, by contrast, the word is frequently deployed as a thought-terminating cliché—a way to promote the idea that some military or police activity should be permitted to occur outside of the constraints of the Constitution, particularly against certain classes of people. In the last few decades, and particularly since 9/11, those classes of people have tended to be Muslim.
At the beginning of his term as attorney general, Holder sought to treat terrorism as a law enforcement issue. This was the right instinct. Terrorists are criminals with political ideas, but they are still criminals. The term terrorism is used to strip those criminals—and many noncriminals—of longstanding legal protections. And its ultimate effect has been to make it politically harder to defend the idea of treating “terrorism” as a law enforcement issue, often while creating the space for even more terrorism.
The Shawn Kings of the world want the definition of “terrorism” to encompass more white guys, but they aren’t the only ones who will be caught up in the net. They should be very careful what they wish for.