On 1 October 2017, America witnessed its 1,516th and deadliest mass shooting in recent history with Stephen Paddock murdering 59 innocent people and injuring a further 500. Over the past three years America has been subject to three horrific shootings, all for different reasons. All incidents sparked nationwide heartbreak over the loss of innocent lives, as well as nationwide outrage over the lax gun control laws the government refuses to acknowledge and change. While the Orlando shooting, committed by a Muslim, was labelled as a terrorist attack, both the Las Vegas and Charleston incidents, committed by white men, were defined as mass shootings. This raises the question, how does America differentiate between mass shootings and terrorist attacks? Do we just save the T-word for those from an ethnic background?
Before we can answer any of these questions we first need to decide on a clear definition of terrorism. Unfortunately, terrorism is a contested concept, amongst political scientists, government ministers and security officials. All of them have their own interpretation of what is considered a terrorist act. While experts cannot agree on an objective definition there is a general consensus that one-way terrorism differs from crime is motivation. According to eminent theorist, Bruce Hoffman, terrorists are politically motivated when committing acts of violence, and justify their actions insisting they are for the greater good. In contrast, mass shooters act upon selfish personal desires such as greed or vengeance.
However, the 2015 Charleston shooting brings Hoffman’s definition into serious contention. When Dylan Roof arrived at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church and shot twelve African American churchgoers, he did so with the intention of reigniting a race war. Roof was a 21-year old white supremacist who had his own website where there are photos of him posing in front of neo-Nazi symbols and the Confederate flag. It is clear that Roof had an ideological motivation, thus, making him a terrorist. Yet no one was willing to label him as one, instead of calling him a white gunman or a shooter. With all the evidence proving Roof was a terrorist, why was everyone so reluctant to call him one?
In contrast, when Omar Mateen murdered fifty people at Pulse Nightclub, he was labelled a terrorist, yet, there is little evidence to suggest he was linked to any terrorist organization. Mateen was a 29-year old American citizen, born in New York to two Afghan parents. Throughout his childhood he was described as having discipline problems, regularly getting into fights with other classmates and making inappropriate comments. This behaviour did not change as Mateen aged, being dismissed from the Florida Department of Corrections after an officer reported him for laughingly asking if he could bring a gun to class in the wake of the Virginia Tech Massacre.
During his attack at Pulse Nightclub, Mateen called emergency services swearing allegiance to ISIS. While Mateen has a history of indulging in inappropriate humour and committing violent acts, those close to him never described him as devoutly religious. Therefore, when it was revealed that Mateen’s attack was linked to ISIS, it came as quite a shock.
While ISIS claim credit for the attack, there is no evidence suggesting they were in contact with Mateen prior to the shooting, nor did they have any knowledge about the attack beforehand. It is more likely that Mateen was an ISIS sympathiser, inspired by the group’s ideological mission. ISIS is known to have expressed homophobic views in the past, and it is possible these views correlated with Mateen’s feeling towards the LGBTQ community.
There is another theory that Mateen was not inspired by ISIS at all, and only claimed to be to cover his true intentions for targeting the gay club. Numerous reports have emerged that Omar Mateen was found on various gay dating apps, had male lovers and even visited Pulse a few times before his attack. Furthermore, Mateen was known to have expressed homophobic views to his parents claiming the idea of two men kissing is absolutely disgusting. It is possible that Mateen chose to attack a gay club because he was frustrated with his own sexuality. Going back to the question at the start of the article, do we just save the T-word for those from an ethnic background?
Similarly, the most recent and most violent attack offers little insight into the perpetrator’s motivations. Admittedly there has been little time, however, what we do have seems to imply that police are facing the same problem as with the Orlando shooting in determining Paddock’s motivation. However, unlike Mateen’s case, they seem to be holding back from calling him a terrorist.
Similar to the Orlando shooting, ISIS did claim responsibility for the attack, even though Paddock did not swear allegiance to the organization and there is no proof he was in touch with ISIS. Furthermore, Paddock’s brother describes him as a “highly intelligent, highly successful person” who had no extreme political, religious or ideological alignments. This suggests that Paddock had no altruistic goal when committing the act, thus making it more likely he was acting on personal interests.
Paddock was a son of a notorious bank robber and his own crime demonstrated some amount of sophisticated planning. However, Paddock did not have a criminal record in the lead up to the attack and there is no evidence proving that Paddock was after monetary gain or vengeance. He was financially stable and not known to have any grudges with anyone at the Mandalay Bay Resort or Las Vegas Casino. All that police know about Paddock was that before his attack he transferred $100,000 to his girlfriend, Marilou Danley, who was overseas. Even with the same level of uncertainty surrounding the motivation in both the Orlando and Las Vegas cases, the label of ‘terrorist’ was given to the Muslim American Mateen, but not for the white American Paddock.
The devastating shootings in Charleston, Orlando and Las Vegas clearly prove America has a gun control problem. These events also prove that America might still have a race problem. It was clear that Roof had a political agenda when committing his crime and while there is still uncertainty surrounding the motivations of Paddock and Mateen, the only person society willing to call a terrorist was the one with Afghan heritage. As the debate over whether Roof, Mateen and Paddock are terrorists or mass shooters continues, we must not forget that one hundred and twenty-one lives were lost as a result of these three men. It is important to stop reserving the term terrorist for those from an ethnic background, however, it is more important to remember at the end of the day the cultural divisiveness and a complete lack of gun regulation laws in America, is the cause for the reoccurrence of these violent episodes.