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What is domestic terrorism, and does the Las Vegas shooting qualify?

Why the demands that President Trump label it terrorism may be off-base.
Domestic Terrorism Las Vegas Shooting
Photo: Getty Images

After the mass shooting in Las Vegas, an outcry arose on social media for President Trump to denounce the killings as "domestic terrorism." Some contended that his failure to do so was due to the fact that the shooter was a white man.

The president is a demonstrated racist, both blatant and implied, from his campaign launch speech against Mexican "rapists" to his calling protesting NFL athletes "sons of bitches" at an Atlanta rally. But is the Las Vegas shooting indeed domestic terrorism?

Technically not, by generally accepted and official standards.

In New Yorker piece published Tuesday, Masha Gessen outlines the seven characteristics of a terrorist act, as defined by the Irish political scientist and Oxford vice chancellor Louise Richardson:

"It is politically inspired; it involves violence or the threat of violence; it aims to send a message rather than defeat an enemy; the act and the victim have symbolic significance; the act is carried out by 'substate groups' rather than state actors; the victims of the violence are distinct from the audience for which the terrorist’s message is intended; and the act deliberately targets civilians."

Gessen points out that the FBI uses a more general definition of terrorism but also specifies that the perpetrator must be pursuing a political objective. The FBI's official site on terrorism defines it as "the unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.”

"So far, no evidence has emerged that the Las Vegas shooter was motivated by political beliefs," contends Gessen. "The fact that people are terrorized doesn’t necessarily mean that an act of terror has been committed. This matters, because language matters. When terms are used too broadly, or just sloppily, they lose their meaning."

When asked whether he considered the Las Vegas shooting an act of terrorism, Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo said, “No, not at this point. We believe it was a local individual. He resides here locally. .… We don’t know what his belief system was at this time.”

What about the Charlottesville incident, in which a neo-Nazi rammed and killed a counterprotester with his car? "The label does not legally apply to homegrown extremist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan or neo-Nazis, even if they perform more heinous acts of violence than mass shooters from other countries," wrote Fiza Pirani in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution after Sunday's attack.

“Although acts of war, acts of crime and acts of terror can look very much alike on the surface, they have very different motives, very different reasons for being, and I think that's why people are confused,” said Robin Lakoff, a linguist at the University of California, Berkeley, in a 2015 NPR interview. "They look alike on the surface; they're different underneath.”

 
 
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