- Oct 11 2017
Labeling Stephen Paddock as one may pacify some internal rage, but it is the gun control debate that remains paramount.
Every few months (or weeks, it's difficult to say these days) news of another mass-shooting in the world's only global superpower, the United States, makes headlines around the world. This time, the venue was the glitzy streets of Sin City, Las Vegas, as 58 people attending a music concert were shot dead. Stephen Paddock, from his room on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino, shot innocent bystanders to death as if picking fish in a barrel.
The Vegas shooting has now become the worst such crime in US history. The immediate reactions in the US, and around the world, were similar to previous such incidents in the country as much of the narrative in the hours following the atrocity was based around the usual debate of gun ownership laws. It is perhaps not contestable in a civilised world that current American gun laws allowing people to buy weapons from grocery stores in some-sort of a dystopian stage play hiding under the guise of the country's second amendment, which in turn liberally allows anyone to own guns under the ruse of 'self-protection', is indigestible. However, many debated on why Paddock was not being labelled as a terrorist.
The term 'terrorist' has a heavy weightage to it and has a complex web of attempts that try to define the same. At the United Nations, almost the entire gambit of nation-states, big or small, democratic or autocratic, come together in New York every year with one of the main unsolved questions to assess what the term and ideas behind 'terrorism' really are. The term itself is plagued by its own malice, with countries around the world unable to decide what constitutes terrorism, and how to politically define it as a global phenomenon.
The fact remains his crime does not fit within the parameters of what we know as terrorism.
For example, the United States today is looking to sanction and declare the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC), an elite force under the Ayatollah of Iran's command as a terror group with President Trump looking to exit the Iran nuclear deal. Meanwhile, the same American State Department, till date, despite a 14-year-long war in Afghanistan, has not officially declared the Afghan Taliban a designated sponsor of terror. This highlights the fractures and complexities of the global 'terrorism' debate and the politics around it.
Ideology is a critical aspect when it comes to the definition of terrorism, which separates the same from other crimes such as mass-murder, assassination and so on. Much of the debate around Paddock's heinous crime has now come to the fold of him not being labeled as a 'terrorist' because he is white, and while this may have some degree of truth, the fact remains his crime does not fit within the parameters of what we know as terrorism, or what the discourse of the studies around the topic is attempting to translate both the violence and intent behind the terminology and those who use it as a tool of coercion and political chaos.
One of the definitions of terrorism that this author considers closest to being acceptable comes from Professor Yonah Alexander, Senior Fellow and Director; International Center for Terrorism Studies, Potomac Institute for Policy Studies based in Arlington, Virginia, USA. As a foremost theorist in the field, Alexander defines terrorism as 'the use of violence against random civilian targets in order to intimidate or create generalised pervasive fear for the purpose of achieving political goals'.
The 'political goals' terminology, which finds itself in many other theorists' definitions and research, is an important point. Others such as Alex Peter Schmid, a Dutch terrorism scholar, further highlights that the eventual targets of a terror attack serve as 'message generators' for further political or ideological ends. In her article for The New Yorker, journalist Masha Gessen highlights the Irish political scientist Louise Richardson's seven main characteristics for an act of terror, these are: 1) It is politically inspired, 2) use of violence, 3) deliverance of a message to the enemy, 4) symbolism of the violence and its victim, 5) the attack is carried by a sub-state group, 6) distinction between victims and audience of the message of the attack and lastly the act deliberately targets civilians.
By the above standards, unless Paddock was identified as a neo-Nazi or a white-nationalist, or acting on behalf of ISIS, which oddly, has claimed that he converted to Islam six months ago and carried the attack in the name of the caliphate (refuted by investigating agencies till now, however, latest issue of ISIS's weekly newsletter al-Naba advertised the attack as its own), it is not wise to club him under the bracket of a terrorist.
The term 'terrorism' itself has been more ingrained in American society and culture only in the post 9/11 era, specifically with the moniker of 'War on Terror', which saw the US invade Afghanistan and Iraq as a fallout of the attacks on New York. The term has perfected itself into the American subconsciousness as a broad stroke for largely Islamist violence. To counter this fallacy ridden narrative, which was a tool of American foreign policy, many attacks that are racist, xenophobic, mass-murders are labelled under the 'terrorist' ambit. In fact, India is much more accustomed to using the term 'terrorism' closer to what it is meant to be than America, thanks to decades-long suffering from cross-border terrorism sponsored by Pakistan. In India terrorism has clear, example led narratives and the distinction between mass-shootings (which largely do not occur thanks to guns not being available for sale on the same counters as chocolates) and terrorism-related attacks.
In India terrorism has clear, example led narratives and distinction between mass-shootings and terrorism-related attacks.
In the US, the fact remains that even as labelling people like Paddock as a terrorist pacifies internal rage at some level, it is the debate of gun control that remains paramount. While Paddock's crime led to the biggest mass-shooting in American history, if the US was not moved to a war-footing to ban guns after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012, which saw the murder of 20 children in Newtown Connecticut, then labeling mass-shooters as 'terrorist' for narratives' sake is nothing but trivial victories.
This commentary originally appeared in Huffington Post.