If the Las Vegas Killers Were Muslims, We'd Call Them Terrorists

But should we?
Reuters

If a 22-year-old Muslim man stabbed his roommates to death in their sleep, embarked on a killing spree, and claimed in written and video manifestos that he acted to teach hated women a lesson, there's little doubt that many would label him a terrorist. That label was scarcely appended to the Santa Barbara killer after his murders.

And if a Muslim couple stormed into a fast-food restaurant armed with a duffel bag full of military gear, shouted, "This is the beginning of the revolution!" and pinned a flag associated with their political movement to the dead bodies of the police officers they executed at point-blank range—then killed another innocent person and carried out a suicide pact rather than being taken alive—there is no doubt that many media outlets would refer to the premeditated attack as an act of terrorism. With a few exceptions, that's not how this week's news from Las Vegas played out. 

When mass killers are native-born whites, their motivations are treated like a mystery to unraveled rather than a foregone conclusion. And that is as it ought to be. Hesitating to dub the Santa Barbara and Las Vegas murder sprees "terrorist attacks" is likely the right call. The label casts more heat than light on breaking-news events. Americans typically respond more soberly and rationally to mass killings than to "terrorist attacks." And while both sprees obviously targeted civilians, the varying degrees to which they sought to influence politics is unclear.

That said, the pervasive double-standard that prevails is nevertheless objectionable. As Glenn Greenwald once observed, "terrorism" is "simultaneously the single most meaningless and most manipulated word in the American political lexicon. The term now has virtually nothing to do with the act itself and everything to do with the identity of the actor, especially his or her religious identity." 

Applying the "terrorism" label to violence perpetrated by Muslims, and almost exclusively to violence perpetrated by Muslims, distorts the relative danger posed by Islamist radicals versus other extremists. The lack of rigor in labels also contributes to the fact that innocent Muslims are subject to greater scrutiny and afforded fewer rights than non-Muslims because the latter group falls outside "counterterrorism," a rubric under which government claims extraconstitutional powers.

After the 2012 attack on a Sikh temple in Wisconsin that is all but forgotten because it wasn't treated as a terrorist attack, I argued that the reluctance to label acts perpetrated by non-immigrant whites as terrorism is partly due to an awareness of what might happen next. When counterterrorism is invoked, many Americans give their assent to indefinite detention; the criminalization of gifts to certain charities; the secret, extrajudicial assassination of American citizens; and a sprawling, opaque homeland-security bureaucracy. Many have also advocated policies like torture or racial profiling that are not presently part of official anti-terror policy. 

White terrorists call the de-facto exemption of whites from these tactics into question. Had the Las Vegas killer pinned a flag with Islamic associations to the body of the dead police officers, the American right wouldn't hesitate to support aggressive FBI investigations of other Americans who've posted the same flag to Facebook or Instagram.

Instead, the killers adorned their victims with the Gadsden flag. Tea Partiers insist that should not implicate their movement or its typical adherents. They're absolutely right. Tea Partiers should not now be subject to intrusive surveillance, for example. The American majority's unwillingness to extend the same logic and courtesy to Muslim Americans helps to explain policies like the NYPD's decision to embed undercover agents among Muslims for no reason other than their religion. 

Civil-liberties abrogations often affect disfavored groups exclusively or most intensely in the beginning, but are later turned on Americans generally. I expect that will be the case with counterterrorism unless the country gets off of war footing soon. "After these killings in Nevada, and the murders at a Jewish community center in Kansas, and the murders at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, and multiple murders by members of the 'sovereign citizens' movement in the last few years, it’s worth remembering that since 9/11, right-wing terrorism has killed many more Americans than al Qaeda terrorism," Paul Waldman writes in the Washington Post.

The Department of Justice has recently declared its intention to focus on homegrown terrorists. What would happen in the aftermath of another Oklahoma City?

The threat of right-wing terrorism shouldn't be denied any more than the threat of Islamist terrorism. These are real phenomenon. But as Brian Beutler points out, neither sort of terrorism has killed very many people in the United States since 9/11. "Among causes of death in the U.S., right-wing violence must rank near the bottom," he writes, even though it has killed more people than Islamic terrorism in that period.

Going forward, things could go either way. The panicked, civil-liberties-abrogating way that America reacts to Islamic terrorism could be applied to non-Muslims; or the relatively sane way we respond to white mass killers (and the innocents who share their ethnicity) could inform our approach to Islamist terrorism and the multitude of innocent Muslims who don't deserve to suffer because of it.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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