The debate on terrorism is back in focus. Whether violence carried out by an individual, apparently unaffiliated to any militant organisation, on a large number of innocent people, constitutes an act of terror has been a contentious issue in recent months. In an increasing atmosphere of Islamobhobia that has gripped western governments and sharply polarised their societies, the mass killing in Las Vegas on October 1 by a white Christian gunman has added a new layer to the debate. Stephen Paddock’s act of carnage led several people to ask justifiably: “How could the worst mass shooting in US history not be terrorism?”
This, interestingly, is the third time in four months that the American public is talking about the issue. In June, when a man attacked members of the Republican Baseball team practising just outside Washington and again in August, when a man drove his car on protestors at a white supremacist meet in Charlottesville, people had similar questions. In both cases, the attackers were white Christians. Given this, many have wondered about the reasons behind President Donald Trump’s reluctance to term the incidents as such, even though he is always ready to highlight the threat posed by “radical Islamic terrorism”.
Indeed, discussions on terrorism and the Las Vegas killings exist in a polarised atmosphere. There is a growing sense that different standards are used while dealing with incidents where non-white, Muslim men are involved and those where the perpetrator happens to be a white, Christian male like Paddock.
Can events like the Las Vegas killings be described as acts of terrorism?
“Based on the current information available, I would not say that it is an act of terrorism,” says professor of International Relations at the University of North Carolina, Navin Bapat. “The definition of terrorism is that it is an act of political violence committed by a non-state actor against civilians for the purpose of influencing a larger audience than the immediate victims,” says Bapat, an expert on ‘terrorism and foreign policy’.
So while Paddock was a non-state actor attacking civilians, there is no evidence that the attack was politically motivated, nor any that the intention was to influence someone beyond the immediate victims. “This evidence may surface later, but right now, there isn’t enough information to suggest that it is terrorism,” Bapat adds.
“Terrorism is an act of political violence used to coerce a population through fear,” says Andrew Mumford of Nottingham University. Echoing Bapat, he points out, “Right now, we don’t know what Paddock’s motives were. Until then, I would be reluctant to label it terrorism.”
It comes down to the motive, says Mumford. “Take the actions of Anders Breivik in Norway, who killed dozens of young left-wing political activists out of a perverted fascist ideology.” That was politically motivated—undeniably terrorism. “But we need to know if Paddock was more than just an angry unstable individual wanting to murder people for the sake of it,” Mumford adds.
However, he does acknowledge a bias existing among governments while dealing with acts of mass killing involving non-whites. “Undeniably, there has been a tendency for authorities to use the label ‘terrorism’ faster in instances where the perpetrator is not white,” he says.
“This would imply that the skin colour of the perpetrator indicates to them a particular political motive,” Mumford points out. “I think Islamic State’s bizarre attempt to claim ownershsip of Paddock is a sign of desperation by a group struggling to survive.”
The IS might be written off by most after their reverses in Iraq and Syria and most governments today recognise ‘terrorism’ to be the worst scourge that afflicts civilised society, but continue to exercise discretion on where and how they want to use the term.
Indian officials who for years were involved in garnering support at the United Nations and other multilateral forums against cross-border-terrorism from Pakistan in Jammu and Kashmir and elsewhere in the country recall how reluctant most international players were to come out in the open and support New Delhi on the issue.
According to Asoke Mukerji, former Indian Permanent Representative at the UN in New York, it was an uphill task to get a resolution passed on the need to put up a united fight against terrorism. Partly, this was due to the wide support and sympathy that the Palestinians enjoyed in their struggle for a homeland. Though many of their desperate acts would now be described as ‘acts of terror’, their supporters, who were also members of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), turned a blind eye when the issue of terrorism was being watered down. “Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, Pakistan took advantage of this prevailing mood to equate their activities in Jammu and Kashmir with the issue of Palestine,” says Mukerji. Subsequently, they got further support when they got the Islamic countries to support its stand, adds Mukerjee.
The issue of terrorism and how to define it had always been a problematic area at the international stage. It was only after the assassination of King Alexander of Yugoslavia and the French foreign minister Louis Barthou at Marseilles by militant secessionists of Vardar Macedonia in 1934 that international players began to take formal cognisance of this threat. Subsequently, this led the 24-member League of Nations in 1937 to have the first convention for the Prevention and Punishment of Terrorism.
Yet it took the brutal killing of Israeli athletes at Munich Olympics in 1972 for the issue to be taken up by the UN General Assembly. However, during the Cold War period, the issue never got off the table, as the US and the Soviet Union had support for opposing militant groups and the power to veto any attempts to isolate and punish their clients.
“The turning point was 9/11 and the change in the mood in the US,” says Mukerji. Interestingly, in 2004, as a non-permanent member of the UN security council, Pakistan agreed to a description of ‘terrorism’ and a resolve to combat it by the world body, but has hitherto found ways to circumvent it.
Subsequently, the audacious 2008 Mumbai terror attacks fundamentally turned the tide in India’s favour—the world was finally made aware of the grievous threat that terrorism poses to democracies. “For the first time, key world players started looking at the threat as a global phenomenon rather than limiting it only to India-Pakistan and the issue of Kashmir,” says Mukerji.
Though the world is more aware of the threat posed by terrorism than ever, governments are still wary while deciding which mass killing should be seen as an ‘act of terror’ and which purely is a criminal act.
“Terrorism has a strict definition and it is best if it is not overused,” says Bapat. According to him, the implications rest on how governments respond. If the act is a homicide that results in multiple fatalities, the matter remains one for law enforcement. Police agencies (federal, state, and local) will likely investigate and may charge one or more persons, whose guilt or innocence will be determined by the judicial system. However, says Bapat, if an act is labelled ‘terrorism’, there is a possibility that governments may behave more aggressively, particularly if the attack is considered transnational—meaning that it originates from foreign countries or entities.
“The nature of the attack isn’t different—regardless of whether it is a homicide or terrorist event, people die and this is tragic,” he adds, reminding us to look beyond the semantics and narrow political agenda to focus on the larger human tragedy and loss of innocent lives.