A few weeks ago, one of the deadliest shootings in US history occurred in Las Vegas. Stephen Paddock, a 64-year-old white male from Mesquite, Nevada, opened fire on a group of concert-goers, killing 59 and injuring 546.
Despite the act of terror, there is a reluctance to label this massacre a terrorist attack. This emphasizes a double standard in our society: white killers are labelled as mentally unstable, while Muslim perpetrators are labelled terrorists influenced by radical religious ideology.
In Canada, terrorist acts are legally defined as acts of violence committed for political or ideological reasons. In the US, international terrorism is committed by individuals or groups motivated by “designated foreign terrorist organizations or nations,” while domestic terrorism is committed by individuals or groups inspired by “primarily U.S.-based movements that espouse extremist ideologies of a political, religious, social, racial, or environmental nature.”
However, whether or not perpetrators are legally classified as terrorists rests with prosecuting authorities.
In spite of the massive scale of the attack, Las Vegas Sheriff Joe Lombardo labelled Stephen Paddock as a “lone wolf” and “local individual” before conducting any extensive background investigation. Such statements seem common when perpetrators are white men. Similar language was used to describe James Holmes, perpetrator of the 2012 Colorado movie theatre shooting, and Dylann Roof, a white supremacist who killed nine Black churchgoers in Charleston in 2015.
The Las Vegas shooting has also revived concerns about bias against Muslim perpetrators perpetuated by politicians and media outlets, who appear to leave white perpetrators like Paddock comparatively unscathed.
There are stark differences between how US politicians treat Muslim shooters and white shooters. After the Las Vegas shooting, President Donald Trump tweeted his condolences to the victims and told reporters he thought Paddock was a “sick” and “demented” man. Before autopsies were performed or Paddock’s motives were determined, US House speaker Paul Ryan made a statement calling for mental illness reform — which he said “is often a diagnosis” with shootings like these.
The motivations behind mass shootings like the one in Las Vegas thereby often remain restricted to mental well-being and do not scrutinize white American men as a collective people.
In contrast, after the September 15 London bombing this year — also before any investigation was conducted — Trump tweeted that the attack was carried out by “a loser terrorist.” This was followed by another tweet exploiting the bombing to legitimize Trump’s infamous travel ban against citizens of six majority-Muslim countries.
Labelling Paddock a lone wolf or as mentally unstable individualizes and isolates his actions, hence segregating his behaviour from an ideology or a certain group of people. The motivations behind mass shootings like the one in Las Vegas thereby often remain restricted to mental well-being and do not scrutinize white American men as a collective people.
The media is also guilty of discrepancies when reporting mass shootings by white males as opposed to Muslims. Many media outlets have released articles questioning the mental stability of white shooters, or alternatively, hesitating to speculate on their motives at all. After the Paddock shooting, for instance, The Globe and Mail published an article entitled “Las Vegas Shooter’s motive still elusive after deadly attack.” This willingness to hesitate before jumping to conclusions should also be afforded to cases involving Muslim perpetrators.
Other articles also work to humanize the perpetrator. A Washington Post article described Paddock as someone who liked to gamble and listen to country music, adding that he “was a quiet man.”
Some newspapers deviate from this pattern when reporting Muslim shooters; in these instances, the perpetrator’s religious life is centralized. The two shootings that happened in Fort Hood in 2009 and 2014 are great examples: one shooter was Nidal Hasan, a Muslim man, and the other was Ivan Lopez, a non-Muslim man. Hasan and Lopez had similar histories: both were mentally unstable and held grievances against their fellow soldiers. Still, though the two atrocities were characterized as terrorism by law enforcement, headlines from CNN, NBC, and CBS were keen to hail mental illness and depression as the root cause of Lopez’s actions.
In covering the Hasan shooting, however, the media labelled him a terrorist and reiterated his religiosity. Hasan made the cover of Time magazine, in which the cover story was called “The Fort Hood Killer: Terrified … Or Terrorist?” The story opened with, “What a surprise it must have been when Major Nidal Malik Hasan woke up from his coma to find himself not in paradise but in Brooke Army Medical Center,” pinpointing the presumed ‘Islamic logic’ behind the shooting. Articles published by CNN and the Los Angeles Times also emphasized that religion was very important to Hasan.
Evidence exists of systemic bias in news coverage as well. One study of 170 news articles found that the word ‘terrorist’ was used for Muslim perpetrators more than twice as many times as for white perpetrators, while ‘mentally ill’ was ascribed to white male shooters 80 per cent of the time, an astounding 20 times more often than Muslim perpetrators.
The ultimate question that surfaces from irregularities in representation of shooters is why those irregularities exist in the first place.
At the outset, it could be blatant Islamophobia. From having to watch a copy of the Quran being burned and left outside a Sacramento Mosque to an innocent woman having her hijab pulled off in a London, Ontario supermarket, antagonism against Muslims has developed in both Canada and the US. Post-9/11, the world at large saw the whole of Islam as a religious ideology entrenched in violence and destruction. This fear contributes to our lack of hesitance when labelling Muslim perpetrators as terrorists.
In the same way, the War on Terror — which has hitherto been against a foreign radical Islamist enemy — invigorates the notion that terrorism is a foreign threat. Ergo, the terrorist label is reserved for Muslims because it serves as an ascription to foreigners who do not represent ‘American values’ — whereas Americans, particularly white Americans, are immune to such labels.
The fact of the matter is that Muslims are not responsible for more mass shootings than white men in America. A great deal of violence can be attributed to white supremacy and racism, especially following Trump’s election. As Las Vegas leaves millions reeling, it is important for us as students to educate ourselves on these issues and to seek the truth behind what we hear and see. As the audiences of politicians and media outlets learn to dismantle and challenge the assumptions underlying these messages, we can work toward annihilating the prejudices that infect our society.
Abdul Ali is a first-year student at St. Michael’s College studying International Relations.