Following Stephen Paddock’s massacre in Las Vegas on Sunday night, there was, apparently, too little talk of terrorism. So little, in fact, that #terrorism trended nationwide on Twitter and most major news outlets published something exploring the nature and definition of the word. Within a day, rivers of digital ink had been spilled on the absence of the “terror” term in official and media descriptions of the attack and the white male attacker.
It was an understandable, well-intentioned scramble to correct a racist double standard: Muslim killers are presumed terrorists, and white killers are accorded the benefit of lone-wolf status. Before the full body count was tallied, when next to nothing was known about 64-year-old gunman, the local Clark County Sheriff told press that he was not treating the shooting as a terrorist event: “No, not at this point,” he said. White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders echoed that “it would be premature to weigh in” on the terror question. It’s fair to guess that no such restraint and patience would have been applied had the killer been Muslim.
But the debate has fallen across a limited fulcrum wherein our options seem to be either maintaining a racist application of the terror label or demanding a broader application, which names white terror with equal readiness. The possibility of rejecting the terrorism label tout court is left off the table. This is a problem. The application of “terrorism” to white violence is not wrong, but it’s not useful, because the term “terrorism” is almost never useful—except, of course, if you’re the state.
There is no neutral application of “terrorism” available such that all cases of violent crime with political or social objectives receive the label. Many ideology-drenched criminal acts that coerce and terrorize civilian populations don’t get deemed terrorism. If we wanted to truly equalize the term’s application, the violent targeting and caging of young black men by police would constitute a persistent terrorist threat. But we know, of course, that the state is exempt from the label, because the label is a state weapon. This is inherent to the meaning of terrorism in the United States, which has nothing to do with the presence of political objectives motivating a violent act per se, but everything to do with the state’s singling out its ideological enemies. By naming and reifying an enemy, the state has grounds to ramp up policing, surveillance, and other aspects of a repressive apparatus. “Counterterrorism” has been the framework of the last 16 years through which the US government has excused a whole manner of bellicose and oppressive acts.
“I’d like to hear more about how calling it terrorism ends up making us safer? Will it lead to weapons ban or just more aggressive policing?” asked Alex Vitale, professor of sociology at Brooklyn College and author of The End of Policing, in response to a tweet that stated, “#stephenpaddock is a terrorist.” Vitale, when met with predictable and reasonable replies about racist double standards, replied, “do we really want to feed the ‘terrorism’ machine? Esp[ecially] with Trump.” Vitale makes a good point: The interpellation of “terrorist” has a fierce history of promoting a repressive and military state apparatus, not justice.