Why police don’t call the Las Vegas shooting terrorism
Is it the lack of a political motive for the worst mass shooting in modern US history - or racism?
With 59 people now confirmed dead, Sunday night’s gun attack in Las Vegas is the worst mass shooting in recent US history - yet the authorities are not treating it as a terrorist incident.
When asked if the killing was terror-related, Clark County sheriff Joseph Lombardo said: “No, not at this point, we believe it is a local individual, he resides here locally.”
Asked why he did not then regard the attack as domestic terrorism, Lombardo said: “We have to establish what his motivation is first. There’s motivating factors associated with terrorism other than a distraught person just intending to cause mass casualty.
"Before we label with that, it will be a matter of process. We don’t know what his belief system was at this time.”
The FBI dismissed claims made by Islamic State in the immediate aftermath of the shooting that it was responsible for the attack, saying gunman Stephen Paddock had “no connection to international terrorist organisations”. Isis had said the 64-year-old had converted to Islam a few months ago.
Terrorism is often defined as being politically motivated - yet Nevada law “does not require a motivation to be established in order for an attack to be called an ‘act of terrorism’”, says Newsweek.
Nevada statutes merely define 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”.
Responding to the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, Barack Obama defined terrorism, saying: “Any time bombs are used to target innocent civilians, it is an act of terror.” Yet “the term has not always been consistently applied”, says Newsweek.
One example cited by the magazine is the 2015 killing of nine people at a historically black church in South Carolina by a white supremacist, Dylann Roof, which was not prosecuted as a terrorism case.
The varied response to domestic shootings, along with the Las Vegas police assessment, reveals entrenched attitudes to race and religion, says Jack Moore in GQ. While under the legal definition, Stephen Paddock was obviously a terrorist, says Moore, “because he’s white, we don’t call it that”.
Parallels have already been drawn with last year’s shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, which claimed the lives of 49 people and was until Sunday the US’s deadliest recent gun attack.
Despite also being perpetrated by a lone-wolf gunman, the Orlando massacre was quickly denounced as a terrorist incident after links were found between the shooter and Isis.
By contrast, Donald Trump yesterday avoided calling the Las Vegas shooting an act of terrorism in a carefully worded statement.
He also refused to use the term when denouncing the killing of a counter-protester at a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August, saying only “you can call it whatever you want”.