It’s a hard question to answer, and like much of social science, remains subjective. However, given the current state of American society (with perhaps the most opportunistic, narcissistic and demonstrably divisive president in history), and the emotionally charged nature of the subject, it can be difficult to find a good answer.
Here are a couple of thoughts on the subject, and a few points to consider. In judging the complicit actor in such attacks, the following factors should be taken into account:
Hence, despite pockets of better-balanced demographics, all those who live in the US and do not fall in those categories are minorities. Four of these minority groups are particularly politically battered at this point in time:
- Black Americans
- Latino Americas
- Muslim Americans
- LGBTQ Americans
LGBTQ Americans have felt the wrath of the mainstream (as defined in ¹) for most of modern history and continue doing so, but their acceptance is at an all time high in the current political landscape.
It is also worth noting that the four groups mentioned above have all been targeted in the bullying antics of Donald Trump over the last 10 months, with more attacks on LGBTQ Americans expected..
Given these demographics and persecuted minorities, we can break down our definitions of Terrorist vs Non-Terrorist hostile actor into two categories:
White and/or Christian - WC OR Latino or Black and/or Muslim - LBM
Sexual orientation is less of a factor here as its triggers of discrimination are different than those against race and religion (a primal patriotism or mental-construct of ‘us vs them’).
Objectively speaking, of course an attacker’s ethnic background speaks nothing of them being a terrorist; however, with the United States largely being a white Christian nation and most of its customs built to those ideals, those who fall in the WC category are routinely called ‘lone-wolves’ and those in LBM are usually called terrorists. *
The actor’s motivation is really the key deciding factor in judging whether or not they are a terrorist, but once built-in human filters – such as race, religion, gender, etc. – are taken into account, some nuance is added here.
The standard definition of terrorism requires acts of violence or destruction done towards civilians towards a political or religious means. Let’s come up with a more specific definition of this for the current political climate by breaking down possible motivations into two categories:
Socio-Political - SP OR Psychopathic or Menal-Illness inflicted - PM
SP inspired motivations will differ when accounting for your own political views, but the following factors are standard as of now:
SP ~ [ self-inflicted political isolation (alt-rightists, neo-nazis, extreme libertarians), a desire to enforce or establish a religiously motivated state (ISIS, etc.), stance on gun control, homophobia or (self)-loathing of LGBTQ acceptance, fear of immigration or other religions, fear of modernization/cultural change, racism or being endonormative ]
PM motivations will include the following:
PM ~ [ pyschopathia, serious mental conditions causing predisposed behavior such as schizophrenia or suicidal depression, being disgruntled with economic or personal-relationship circumstances ]
Those attackers who are motivated by the list in SP can be considered terrorists, since they are working hard to inspire terror in the lives of innocent civilians towards a socio-political means.
Those in the PM category however, could legitimately be considered solo-attackers.
The target group(s) of the hostile actor should also be considered before deciding whether or not their acts constitute terrorism. Hostile actors can pick their targets based on some of the factors already mentioned above, such as:
Discriminate ~ [ race, religion, sexual orientation, nationality, cultural-cohort such as millennials, others ]
Non-Discriminate ~ [ ]
The category of one’s targets does not factor in binarily into judging whether or not they are a terrorist, but if their targets are discriminate and co-relate with their motivations, that can certainly help put them in the terrorist category.
So with these factors in mind, let’s look at whether or not Stephen Paddock, the perpetrator of the horrendous attacks in Las Vegas on October 1 can be considered a terrorist, or a lone-wolf.
Ethnic Background: He clearly falls in the WC category
Motivation: Currently unknown, however from what is being revealed, his attacks were pre-meditated and planning had begun as early as 10 months prior
Targets: Seemingly Non-Discriminate, but this might change as more is discovered about him
So at this moment in time, 3 days after the attacks, I don’t believe we have enough information to conclusively make a judgement on the issue.
What is clear though is that had Paddock fit into the LBM category, the average American would have instantly castigated him as a terrorist. The difference that this makes in how the USA deals with such events is fairly pronounced. In the case of WC attackers, the average response is “Ah, what a tragedy, my heart goes out to all the victims”; in the case of LBM attackers, the average response is “We’re under attack!”. The latter is harmful not only because it constructs a false sense of blame on all LBM people, further wedges society apart and reinforces stereotypes that have been carelessly fabricated, but also because it affects the democratic institutions of America and hence its foreign policy. A “Help, we’re under attack” mentality leads to more wars, bans, and international aggression. The sense with which members of the public react to such events directly alters the political stances and slogans that politicians use in their campaigns to get elected, and ricochets back into the mainstream with a healthy dose of misinformation and xenophobia.
Another point of clarity that we already have from this attack is that regardless of the categories that Paddock can or cannot be placed in, he should not have had access to the 23 guns that were found in his hotel room, or the 19 more found in his home along with “explosives and thousands of bullets”. Most of his guns were not made for hunting or other activities that gun-enthusiasts use to justify gun ownership, but they were made for killing humans.
The same night that Paddock killed 60+ civilians and injured more than 527, there were similar attacks in both Edmonton, Canada and Marseille, France. In both instances, the attackers used knives. In Edmonton, 5 were injured, and in Marseille, 2 killed. Barely-cogent arguments such as “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” and suggestions that increased gun control would not have prevented such an attack because Paddock would have acted anyway don’t take into account the sheer magnitude that guns add to the equation. The ease with which guns (particularly automatic and/or assault rifles) kill make them devices that we should take extreme precaution with. This applies to how they are handled, and also how they are distributed, and disposed of. If we refuse to take such simple actions to protect the society in which we live and the political ideals we fight for, events of such magnitude will remain commonplace, and our sensitivity to them will dampen more and more.
* As pointed out to me, Nidal Hasan was not written off as a terrorist once his membership of the Army was verified.