Once again, a crowd of innocent people enjoying a night out at a music concert have had their lives taken in a senseless and vicious act of brutality and callousness. On Sunday 1st October, 62 year old Stephen Paddock killed 59 people and injured over 500 more in a mass shooting in Las Vegas. From his 32nd floor room at the Mandalay Bay Hotel, he opened fire with an arsenal of modified semi-automatic assault rifles, upon concert goers attending a country music festival.
As an act of mass murder, this atrocity was not overly dissimilar to the shooting at the Bataclan theatre, Paris in 2015 in which 89 people were massacred by members of the Islamic State during an Eagles of Death Metal concert. It also has parallels with the murder of concert-going teenagers in the Manchester Arena attack in May this year. And so the question on everybody’s lips, or at least on the lips of people determined to spin this horrific barbarism for their own nefarious political ends, is why were the latter cases described as a terror attacks, while this most recent incident has been labelled mass murder?
There exists a large number of cynical and manipulative people, desperate to detect undercurrents of bigotry and racial prejudice at every turn, who would have us believe that the answer lies in the skin colour and/or religion of the perpetrator(s). The story goes that the West is inherently racist and Islamophobic, and therefore treats terrorism as the sole preserve of brown skinned Muslims whilst excusing the crimes of white gunmen as mere spree-killings by mentally ill ‘lone-wolves’. It’s a glaring example, we are told, of systemic white privilege, of racial supremacy, and of bigoted double standards towards Muslims. “Whiteness, somehow, protects men from being labelled terrorists” claims Shaun King writing in The Intercept. This is an incredibly strange assertion to make when considering that blond haired, blue eyed, Aryan poster-boy Anders Behring Breivik was convicted of terrorism back in 2012, whilst the words “terrorist” and “terrorism” failed to make an appearance whatsoever in the case of a black, Sudanese immigrant carrying out a mass shooting at a Tennessee church less than two weeks ago. It’s a position that must ignore virtually every media report of violence during the struggles in Northern Ireland. It’s a position that must ignore characters like Timothy McVeigh, Ted Kaczynski, and Eric Rudolph. It’s a position that must ignore recognised terrorist organisations like the Ku Klux Klan, the Aryan Nations, the Ulster Volunteer Force, and the Real Irish Republican Army; groups which I suspect are not comprised predominantly of Middle Eastern Muslim gentlemen.
The truth of the matter is that terrorism, like any other word, has a definition, albeit a contentious one, and it is not merely “an act that induces terror” as many claim. The distinction between terrorism and mass murder lies in the motive of the assailant. At the time of writing, the motive for this heinous act in Nevada has not yet been determined, and it would therefore be reckless and potentially false to describe it as an act of terrorism. Mass murder and terrorism are not synonymous. Terrorism can include mass murder, but mass murder is not terrorism in and of itself, unless it is committed for ideological reasons. The definition of terrorism, as listed in the Oxford English dictionary is as follows:
“The unlawful use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims.”
This is essentially the widely accepted definition, and the variable of “political aims” is the important factor in distinguishing terrorism from mass-murder or other kinds of violence and intimidation. These aims are not always easy to determine or categorise and there is occasionally a need for a subjective judgement call in determining whether a crime is an act of terror. There are also states within the U.S, and countries around the world, which have quite arbitrary and idiosyncratic definitions of terrorism. Nevada specifically defines 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.” And while there is no universally agreed definition, the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations defines terrorism 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.”
To my knowledge, there is no definition of terrorism, anywhere in the world, that is based on the skin colour of the assailant, either in theory or in practice.
You’d get a starkly different impression however, by acquainting yourself with the output of the impossibly absurd sociologist Dr Craig Considine. He has instead decided that skin colour is the defining factor which categorises acts of violence as terrorism. Not content with this, he also seems to see skin colour as the sole important factor in motivating it. Although often rejecting that people can be driven to commit violence as a result of poisonous ideological beliefs (if those ideological beliefs have their roots in Islam), he seemingly has no issue in believing that people can instead be inspired to kill on account of the amount of melanin in their skin. In other words, he’s implying that if deeply held beliefs can indeed inspire violence, then so can the mere circumstance of being white. Remember that this man, in his position as a lecturer at Rice University, is paid to teach other human beings.
There are, of course, ideologies that are based on the superiority of a certain skin colour, but skin tone alone is no more able to drive someone to murder than their height or their shoe size. Ideology, on the other hand, is a set of beliefs and ideals which, almost by definition, will affect the behaviour of those who subscribe to them. Considine apparently sees no difference between the two, hence his fatuous phraseology “moderate Whites.”
There are cases, that of Charleston shooter Dylaan Roof for example, whereby the label of terrorist was entirely warranted and yet not used during prosecution. Surely this is an example of prejudicial treatment towards brown/Muslim terrorists in comparison to their white counterparts? “Dylaan Roof wasn’t charged with terrorism because he’s white” claims Julia Craven in the Huffington Post. Well, no. Roof was prosecuted for a hate crime simply due to the legal minefield (detailed here) that would have resulted from attempting a terrorism prosecution. This coupled with the redundancy of doing so when he was almost certain to receive an identical sentence under a far less problematic hate crime prosecution, rendered the terrorism label essentially irrelevant.
As this article on the Snopes website explains:
“Prosecutors sometimes avoid terrorism charges, not because they are inappropriate to a crime, but because they can be difficult to prosecute and require significant resources, or because existing charges are already likely to carry life sentences or the death penalty and the addition of terrorism charges would not increase the punishment for a crime“.*
These accusations of racial double standards were prevalent immediately following the murder of Labour MP Jo Cox, by white supremacist Thomas Mair. As it happens, Mair was convicted of terrorism. The only reason the word “terrorism” was absent from his trial, was the desire of the Crown Prosecution Service to convict Mair on the basis of his actions, and not rely on jury speculation regarding his motive. As this article reports, precisely the same approach was used in the prosecution of the black, Muslim killers of fusilier Lee Rigby in Woolwich.
Ahmadi Muslim spokesman Qasim Rashid is another regular proponent of this white privilege theory. When Kenneth Gleason murdered two black men and was subsequently discovered to be in possession of a transcript of a speech given by Hitler, Rashid claimed that an article which printed Gleason’s boy scout photo and described him as a thoughtful honour student, was an example of how “White Male Privilege” permeates the western mainstream media. Many others noted the same phenomena present in the reporting of the Vegas shooting, due to reports that seemingly painted a tempered picture of Paddock as a “quiet man who liked to gamble and listen to country music.”
“Can you imagine a Muslim shooter being so quickly humanized like this?” asks Mehdi Hasan in what appears for all the world to be an earnest attempt to berate the media for their unfair treatment of Islamic terrorists.
However, these critics seemingly fail to notice the exact same treatment of brown skinned Muslim killers in the media. When the identity of notorious Islamic State beheading fanatic Jihadi John was revealed, articles began springing up in the mainstream media reporting him as a diligent West London computer studies graduate, featuring photos of him as an angelic schoolboy, and describing him as a football lover whose friends considered him a nice, humble, and friendly guy.
Likewise, when Abdul Waheed Majid blew himself up outside an Aleppo prison, achieving the dubious honour of being the first British suicide bomber in Syria, the BBC report included a childhood photo of him and his brother enjoying a sunny day out on Brighton pier. The Guardian followed suit by publishing a column written by his brother, who described him as a science-fiction fan and “ordinary boy”, and included a cherubic childhood photograph of the pair, along with a picture of Majid hugging his mother.
These examples of humanizing terrorists simply cater for a widespread fascination to understand, and even find glimmers of empathy, with monsters irrespective of their race and religion. We want to know what drives ostensibly normal people to commit acts of evil. And picturing their childhoods, personalities, and home lives is part of that story. This doesn’t always happen of course, and another case which fails to fit this notion of preferential treatment towards white killers, is that of Darren Osborne, who was convicted of terrorism against Muslims, but whose sole biographical information within the pages of the Metro consisted of a neighbours description of him as having “always been a complete cunt.”
Nevertheless, when Colorado college student Austin Wilkerson avoided prison time for a sexual assault on a drunk woman, Qasim Rashid again persisted in presenting the story on social media as evidence of white privilege in action and indicative of rampant misogyny within the Western system.
This would certainly appear on the face of it to be a travesty of justice and a moral outrage. But to attribute it to racial favouritism would mean ignoring the case of Nottingham child-rapist Adil Rashid, a British Muslim who similarly avoided a custodial sentence on the grounds that he was apparently unaware that the rape of 13 year olds constitutes an offence, either legally or ethically. It would also mean ignoring the case of the Afghan immigrant to Australia who was spared a jail term for sexually assaulting eight women on a beach, because the spectacle of women in bikinis was an unfamiliar temptation.
There are double standards at play here, but they are not those of white privilege. If Islamic terrorism and mass-killings by white men were treated with a bias towards the white guy, should we not expect to see articles and reports using skewed statistics to downplay the threat of white shooters? Should we not expect to be told constantly that we’re more likely to die from slipping over in the shower, than we are at the hands of white spree-killers? Should we not expect to be reminded that the responsibility for this carnage lies with nobody but the shooter himself? Should we not expect to be informed that mass murder has no race? And should we not expect to be asked to consider whether the killer had legitimate grievances?
It is extremely early days in the investigation into Stephen Paddock and the deadliest mass shooting in recent American history. It may very well be revealed, that Paddock was ideologically motivated and felt compelled to massacre scores of innocent people, and to destroy families, for political objectives. But nothing yet uncovered in the investigation points to this conclusion. The insistence that establishment of motive be abandoned in favour of preemptively classing this a terror attack helps nobody.
Furthermore, this pathological preoccupation with skin colour, which is so common among self-described anti-racists, is an extremely dubious pastime; and the attribution of white privilege to an atrocity in which the majority of identified victims are white, and in which people of all races were “cowering in terror or running for their lives”, as Spiked editor Brendan O’Neil puts it, is an affront to those killed and injured in this horrendous attack.
*Thanks to Mike Gill (@goosegill) for this quote and for some of the information used in this article.