WHAT was going through your head when you first heard about the Las Vegas shooting?
Shock? Horror? Or, as seems to worryingly be the general reaction to these kinds of events as they become normalised, perhaps you were unsurprised, underwhelmed – maybe you looked up from your phone on the way home from work to turn to your friend and say “bloody Americans, innit?”
Whilst our essential humanity, that is, our ability to feel compassion towards those affected in such harrowing times, there was perhaps something darker going on in our psyche; the need to know, the need to find a reason why.
Through little fault of our own, long before the death toll had even been confirmed, long before the deceased had been identified, our minds were already trying to put a face to the perpetrator.
I won’t hesitate to admit that I first pictured the gunman to be a person with brown skin, and since we’re being honest, you at the back there with the #LoveTrumpsHate badge may as well admit it too. Bearing witness to the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, Manchester and elsewhere in Europe (because we never talk about the kinds of terrorism in which non-white people arguably suffer the most), you can’t really blame us for jumping to conclusions.
Media outlets love to treat the frenzy over mass murders like a really sick game of “Guess Who,” in which we all pat ourselves on the back when our suspicions are proved right. Indeed, identifying these evil individuals in media reports is completely in the public interest and is necessary for justice to be pursued and the crux of our democracy to be upheld. But one only has to contrast the ways in which the media treat a white killer from a brown one to question whether the concept of “justice” is truly universal.
The shooting in Las Vegas on Sunday night is the latest chapter in the long book of gun violence in America’s history that never seems to gather dust. On Sunday night, gunman Stephen Paddock, 64, opened fire on concert goers from the 32nd floor of his hotel room, claiming the lives of 59 people and wounding another 515. He then killed himself before police stormed into his room. Paddock had checked into the Mandalay Bay hotel-casino three days earlier, armed with more than 10 rifles.
The aftermath of events brought with it almost instantly a re-ignition of the debate on gun laws in the US, a topic on which Americans remain as deeply divided as ever. Whilst Trump refused to condemn the American Rifle Association (ARA), and vaguely prodded at the sentiment that “we’ll be talking about gun laws as time goes on,” Hillary Clinton pleaded with her some 18m Twitter followers to “put politics aside” and “stand up to the NRA.” A divisive topic, yes, but one the US loves to talk about nonetheless. What is continuously sidestepped in this debate and others similar to it; is how race and culture play a part in how a narrative of international fear and the illustration of a common enemy is constructed.
Our grief isn't enough. We can and must put politics aside, stand up to the NRA, and work together to try to stop this from happening again.
— Hillary Clinton (@HillaryClinton) October 2, 2017
The first mistake the media made is purely a factual one but has acted as a kind of catalyst to begin analysing how terrorism has been given an identity. Many reports have described the shooting as “the worst in US history,” although some critics are right to have pointed out that up to 300 Native Americans were killed by US troops in 1890 in the Battle of the Wounded Knee at the Lakota Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. But who cares about that- semantics, right?
This is as much about accuracy as it is about race; the latter of which stemming from a tendency for white people to erase the ugly parts of their history and forget that they ever did anything wrong. And just in case you wanted to witness the phrase “history repeating itself” playing out in real life, just look at how the authorities and politicians were squeamishly reluctant to denounce the gunman as a “terrorist.”
Theresa May was asked by Sarah-Jane Mee on Sky News yesterday morning about what more our government could do to prevent “lone wolf” attacks, referring to the shooting in Vegas directly. I’m not sure what I rolled my eyes at more – May bumbling through her answer about “increased security” or Mee’s use of the phrase “lone wolf,” as if May would be expected to have a different folder for these kinds of attacks, filed next to “brown terrorism” in a shiny white ring binder.
Not coincidentally, “lone wolf” has been many media outlets’ word of choice to describe Paddock, along with a “granddad” a “gambler” and a “former accountant;” the word “terrorist” completely absent from the narrative.
Whilst no link has been found to international terrorism and no clear motivation established, many have been pointing out on social media that if Paddock had been a Muslim, the word “terrorist” would’ve been used instantly, without any supporting evidence.
This is as much about accuracy as it is about race; the latter of which stemming from a tendency for white people to erase the ugly parts of their history and forget that they ever did anything wrong.
According to Nevada State Law, an “act of terrorism” is described as follows: “Any act that involves the use of violence intended to cause great bodily harm or death to the general population.”
The federal definition offered by the FBI suggests there must be an intent to “intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.”
This last part- “in furtherance of political or social objectives,” appears to be the primary factor swaying the current debate. This does not justify, however, why anything atrocious, damaging or mildly suspicious actioned by a person with brown skin is immediately attributed to terrorism way before a link to any such belief system has been identified.
Yesterday morning, The Daily Mail pondered upon how a “normal” man could turn into a crazed killer, citing a statement from Paddock’s brother, Eric, who said that his brother had not been an “avid gun guy” and that the family “had no idea in the world.”
Rewind back to May in the fallout from the Manchester bombing, in which Islamic extremist, Salman Abedi, detonated a bomb at an Ariana Grande concert, The Daily Mail drove a hate campaign to confirm its readers worst fears.
Reporting statements by those who knew Abedi, one neighbour, Roshanay Bukhari, said: “they are a Libyan family. They speak Arabic together and they have Libyan flags in their gardens. The mother used to teach my younger sister to read the Koran because it is in Arabic. They dressed very traditionally, in Islamic clothes. She wore a headscarf.”
Such statements go on for pages, and their relevance seems almost laughable if you are to forget about the context of the story, for which petty details become crucial in piecing together a common enemy. Look! Not only does this family have the nerve to display pride for their culture in the privacy of their own home, but they’re radicalising their neighbours by teaching them to read the Koran. AND the mother wears a headscarf! I mean, the signs are all there! We should’ve seen it coming, really.
Trump’s election was driven by a similar, if not more obtuse rhetoric which aimed, and arguably succeeded, in painting Muslims as the public enemy. This is all in spite of the fact that there were almost twice as many terrorist incidents by right-wing extremists as by Islamic extremists in the U.S. from 2008 to 2016. Still, if Trump’s nonchalant reaction to Charlottesville told us anything, it’s that white privilege applies to violence as much as in any other strand of society.
During his time in office, Obama made repeated attempts to try and redefine the definition of “terrorism” as representing the extreme views of any religious or belief group, rather than the community as a whole. Back in September 2016, Obama compared using the term to if a Christian were a murderer but claiming their religions in their actions. He said: “If you had an organisation that was going around killing and blowing people up and said: ‘We’re on the vanguard of Christianity.’ As a Christian, I’m not going to let them claim my religion. That’s not what my religion stands for. Call these folks what they are, which is killers and terrorists.”
So we can nitpick at definitions, we can rip apart what we think we know about terror and the ways in which it impacts our society, but if justice for all victims of terror attacks is to be truly equal, we need to call this attack, and the hundreds of others caused by a white finger pulling a trigger, what it is- terrorism, plain and simple.