Monday's massacre in Las Vegas marked the deadliest shooting in modern American history. Stephen Paddock, 64, unleashed a deluge of gunfire on the packed streets of Las Vegas from the 32nd floor of his hotel. Paddock left 59 dead, and caused hundreds more to be wounded. A fight has erupted over whether to refer to this violence as an act of terror. What is important, regardless of outcome, is that these powerful words have meanings, and we need to be careful how we use them.
Paddock had no immediately apparent ties to any association, political or otherwise. Yet, many prominent figures on the Left are demanding that the attack be called an act of terrorism. Some have muddled the term "terrorist" so much that they wish to deem the NRA a terrorist organization.
What people need to understand is that the word "terrorism" has a very specific meaning, and carries political power. The political landscape has already been dramatically reshaped by concerns about "terrorism," through such policies as the PATRIOT Act, which leave legacies that are mixed at best.
It appears that the Left is attempting to push the "terror" label as a way to bridge the gap between "lone wolves" and Islamic terrorists so as to even the ground in ideological finger-pointing between the Left and Right. It is true that many, generally white, men have "snapped" and wreaked havoc, never to be referred to as "terrorists."
This conception has led some to push for classifying Paddock and those like him as terrorists because they perceive the term "terrorist" as being a proxy for race. Thus, they claim racism when the president and some media outlets refer to Paddock as a "lone wolf" as opposed to terrorist.
When you dispense with the meaning of a word and force it to be used out of context, it loses its meaning. This is a big issue when it comes to a word as powerful as "terrorism."
Terrorism has a definition. It's not a perfect definition, but it is not so malleable as to escape having important meaning. Two definitions are important here: the common definition and the legal definition. Merriam-Webster defines "terrorism" as "The use of violent acts to frighten ... as a way of trying to achieve a political goal." Thus, to be a terrorist under the common definition, motives are not just important, but central. This is why Dylann Roof, for example, was referred to as a terrorist as soon as his racist motives for murdering nine people in a South Carolina church in 2015 were discovered.
The other important definition comes from the United States Code, which defines "terrorism" as "premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents." Here, too, political motivation is essential to the meaning of the term.
Where there is no premeditation and no political goal, under either definition, there is no terrorism. Thus, where the motive is unknown, and no associational link can be made from which a motive can be inferred, it is not an act of terrorism.
That is not to say the act is not terrifying; certainly, it is. However, something that is "terrifying" is not as easy to use as a vehicle to push ill-conceived laws on the American people, laws which could permanently restrict liberty without making the people any safer. Although well-intentioned attempts to curb the threats posed by terrorism have been passed, very little has actually changed from the perspective of terrorists, despite great expense to the civil liberties of law-abiding Americans.
This highlights why care when using the term is appropriate. Calling too many things terrorism could over-encourage policies that might do more harm than good.
The fact that Paddock was not necessarily a terrorist does not make his actions any less reprehensible. He is, quite universally, a bad egg. Still, we must take care to ensure that hammers are called hammers and nails are called nails, because they are very different things. Hitting a nail with another nail will have little practical effect, even if you refer to one as a hammer.
Similarly, bad actors need to be treated and responded to as what they are, be they politically-motivated bad actors or some other type. Right now, we are not sure what Paddock's motivations were, and so it does no good to anyone to assume he is a politically-motivated terrorist.
Matthew Larosiere is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. He holds a J.D. and LL.M. in taxation from the University of Alabama School of law and is pending admission to practice law in Florida. He is also a Young Voices advocate.
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