When Do We Get to Call Someone a Terrorist?

There’s a compulsion to keep mental ledgers of the jihadists and non-jihadists. But what can these statistics really tell us?

Debris litters a festival grounds across the street from the Mandalay Bay resort and casino.
Debris litters a festival grounds across the street from the Mandalay Bay resort and casino on October 3, 2017, in Las Vegas. (Marcio Jose Sanchez / AP)

Police say the Las Vegas killer was a white American named Steve. Two days later, we still know almost nothing else about him. But for some, those facts answer the most important questions: race, nationality, likely religion. For some, those are the most important questions about anyone. The top priority, as soon as blood spills, is to open the ledger, and see whether to add to the column of white rampage killers with names like Steve or Curtis, or the column of olive-hued foreigners with names like Omar or Abd al-Rahman. Ah hell, who am I kidding? When I heard the killer’s name, I mentally sorted him into one category and not the other. Maybe you didn’t. But I bet you did.

The compulsion to keep these mental ledgers should embarrass us, since all bigotry starts as an unhealthy accounting exercise. (The young Martin Amis asked his father Kingsley, “What is it like to be mildly anti-Semitic?” Kingsley replied: “Very mild, as you say. ... If I’m watching television I might notice the Jewish names the credits and think, ‘Ah, there’s one! There’s another one!’”) But worse than keeping a ledger is keeping one without knowing it, and worst of all is keeping a crooked set of books.

On one side, there are hyperventilating charlatans who see every Islamic State stabbing as a sign of a coming Shariah tsunami; when a white guy shoots up a black church, they dismiss him as a headcase, with no broader relevance to politics or race or religion. On the other side is a near photonegative of the same impulse: Every Muslim homicidal maniac is unhinged, and his rage is unrelated to his religion, whatever his own protests to the contrary.

Megan McArdle of Bloomberg conducted a scrupulous audit of New America’s terrorist incident database, which purported to show that radical right-wingers killed more people than jihadists in the period from September 12, 2001, to the middle of 2015. (New America has updated its statistics since then to show that jihadists have pulled ahead in the standings, but because the report was released in 2015, it is typically quoted—including just yesterday by Vox—for its now-outdated numbers.) New America counted as right-wing  extremists several killers whose politics were eclectic, to say the least. Andrew Stack, who flew a plane into an IRS building, seems mostly to have cared about “the 1986 revision to Section 1706 of the tax code, which governs the treatment of technical contractors.” Other inclusions on the right-wing side of the ledger look random, while a number of the omissions on the other side (such as the Beltway snipers—professed jihadists who shot 13 people in and around Washington, D.C., 15 years ago this week) are unexplained. Nor did New America choose the starting date for the data set—September 12th, 2001—randomly. It counted exactly 48 deaths at the hands of right-wingers between that date and mid-2015, compared to 26 killings by jihadists. Almost 3,000 people were killed by jihadists on September 11th alone, and 49 by an Islamic State sympathizer in one night last year in Orlando. (Would the 59 dead in Las Vegas count as victims of right-wing terrorism, absent further evidence about the killer’s motivation? If so, any killing by a white person would probably count.)

The same Vox article that uncritically accepted the New America statistics made a further claim, that non-jihadist white men are a “bigger domestic terrorism threat” than “Muslim terrorists.” As evidence, the author, Jennifer Williams, cited the Las Vegas massacre, four murderers by three clearly bigoted white men, and the attempted murder of Republican congressmen in June. She then points out, correctly, that the most severe jihadist attacks since 2001 have been perpetrated by Americans, permanent residents, and lawful immigrants.

By now it should be clear that the ledgers on religion and mass killings require more fastidious accounting—and, more to the point, fuller consideration of what we should conclude from any of these small numbers. Law enforcement officers, according to one study, worry more about “sovereign citizens” (Americans, mostly white, who do not recognize the authority of the state) than about jihadists. That is only sensible: Why should we be surprised that non-Muslim whites, who constitute 61 percent of the American population, account for more of its murderers than Muslims, who constitute less than 1 percent? Nor can we conclude much from the example of three racist killers, plus one prolific mass murderer whose views on video poker are well known but whose views on race and religion remain, as of this writing, completely opaque. Even if Stephen Paddock turns out to be a raving white supremacist, in raw numbers his body-count won’t match that of the two largest jihadist attacks in recent years, 14 in San Bernardino and 49 in Orlando.

These statistics are, as you can see, a great steaming mess, and they are invoked overwhelmingly for dubious political ends. Would it be better to begin the New America data set from 9 a.m. on September 11, and conclude that jihadist attacks have killed 60 times as many people as right-wing terrorist attacks? The starting point would be equally arbitrary. The numbers are, in either case, so small, and so contentiously categorized, that one doubts whether any confession they might yield under torture will be worth much at all. Whether white racists or jihadists are ahead in the standings is less concerning to me than the fact that one group may have the sympathies of the White House, and the other would perpetrate a Las Vegas-style mass murder every day if it could.

As David Graham wrote yesterday, among the most vexing aspects of the Las Vegas killing is that the killer appears to have left his motivation a mystery. The bizarre claim of credit by the Islamic State leaves our pens hovering indecisively over the ledger, unsure on which side to count the 59 lives, and whether to feel (according to our politics) secretly embarrassed, or secretly and much more shamefully relieved.

I am haunted by a tweet from Walter Kirn, who proposed that the killer killed for “that most chilling and empty of all-American motives: to set a record, to be number one. That’s it.” Maybe he counted bodies like others count frequent flyer miles, and blew his brains out only when he was sure he broke the record and achieved platinum status. The raw simplicity of that potential motive is such that it would leave no traces, no manifestoes; it would be like a diamond, burning without ash. As one habituated to a two-column ledger, I find the most disturbing thought that there are other columns, just as deadly as the first two, that we have not even contemplated.