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Terrorism or not? Las Vegas shooting sparks debate on what to call the attack  

Critics say the usage of the word ‘terrorism’ is often racially motivated.

world Updated: Oct 03, 2017 11:53 IST
HT Correspondent
HT Correspondent
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Las Vegas shooting,Las Vegas,Stephen Paddock
Mourners attend a candle light vigil at the corner of Sahara Avenue and Las Vegas Boulevard for the victims of Sunday night's mass shooting, in Las Vegas, Nevada. (AFP Photo)

US President Donald Trump stuck to a sombre script on Monday after at least 59 people were shot dead in Las Vegas, condemning the largest mass shooting in modern US history as an “act of pure evil” and declaring that the nation would unite behind the survivors. But the President did not use the word “terrorism” and refused to get into a new debate over gun control.

In a measured statement that was revised by aides until moments before he spoke, Trump did not describe the gunman in any way or suggest what might have been behind his actions. He spoke slowly and carefully from the White House Diplomatic Room, focusing not on possible motive of the shooter but on the nation’s efforts to heal: “Our unity cannot be shattered by evil, our bonds cannot be broken by violence,” the president said.

Hours after the shooting at the music festival in Las Vegas, Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack without giving any evidence. The FBI clarified that the gunman, identified as 64-year-old Stephen Craig Paddock of Mesquite, had “no connection” to international terrorist groups.

Authorities did not further comment on Paddock’s religious background and the motive for the attack remained a mystery, with Sheriff Joseph Lombardo saying: “I can’t get into the mind of a psychopath at this point.”

The grounds are shown at the Route 91 Harvest festival, with the Mandalay Bay Hotel behind the stage, on Las Vegas Boulevard South in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Reuters Photo)

But neither declaration ended speculation. Websites, including Facebook and Google, falsely promoted news stories claiming that the shooter was a Democrat, or a supporter of ‘anti-fascist’ group Antifa, The Guardian reported.

Online forum 4chan’s ‘Politically Incorrect’ thread pointed out Geary Danley’s Facebook profile and misidentified him as the shooter. It claimed that Geary was ‘alt-left’, anti-Trump, and married to the ‘person of interest’ in the mass shooting Marilou Danley.

Las Vegas mayor Carolyn Goodman said the attack was the work of a “crazed lunatic full of hate”. Authorities believe Paddock acted alone and he appeared to have no criminal history but his father was a bank robber who was on the FBI’s most-wanted list in the 1960s.

Twitter users pointed out that not terming the shooting a “terrorist attack” was hypocrisy. Some said terrorism does not have a colour and others claimed the incident would have been swiftly termed “Islamic terrorism” if the shooter was involved with an international militant group.

“It’s simple, the Las Vegas shooting was a terrorist attack ! Terrorism does not have a colour. Call it what it really was,” wrote Jennifer.

Another user, Insiyah, called for an end to ‘white privilege’. She tweeted: “Its time we stop white privilege and realize. More then 50 dead and 500 injured.THIS IS TERRORISM (sic).” More chimed in, urging authorities to say the word.

There were, however, users who also said the shooting cannot be called terrorism because police were yet to figure out Paddock’s motive for the attack.

Still, some American politicians publicly said the Las Vegas shooting was an act of terror. Democrat Tim Cooper was lauded for using the “proper terminology” in his tweet: “America woke up to a horrific nightmare. We stand with the victims, their families and the city of Las Vegas as we face this act of terror.” Republican Senator James Lankford was among the officials to condemn the “despicable act of terror”.

What do the laws say?

It’s confusing. The federal and the state law have different definitions.

According to US federal law, terrorism is differentiated on the basis of the motive of the attack, not the casualties. It is defined as “the unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives”, the Legal Information Institute said.

Under the Nevada law, however, the Las Vegas shooting could be a possible terror act. It terms 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”.

US President Donald Trump First Lady Melania Trump, US vice-president Mike Pence and his wife Karen participate in a moment of silence on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, DC. (AFP Photo)
People scramble for shelter at the Route 91 Harvest country music festival after apparent gun fire was heard. (AFP Photo)

The debate isn’t new

Critics say the usage of the word ‘terrorism’ is often racially motivated. A Washington Post report said convicted Charleston church shooter Dylan Roof, a white supremacist who confessed to the attack in the hope of starting a race war, was not charged for terrorism. Roof killed 9 when he opened fire during a prayer service at a historically black church in South Carolina in 2015.

A similar debate was prompted when a white man shot at a Republicans’ baseball practice, injuring member of House of Representatives Steve Scalise, in Virginia in June this year. The shooting was apparently politically motivated because it was believed the attacker was targeting Republicans.

The Trump administration was criticised earlier this year for its failure to denounce the Charlottesville attack as terrorism after a white supremacist drove into a crowd and killed a protester. Trump has not shied away from using the term previously. Only last month, he spoke about “Islamic radical terrorism” and the need to thwart its threat during his debut United Nations speech.

(With agency inputs)

First Published: Oct 03, 2017 11:31 IST