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What happened in Las Vegas was terrible, but was it terrorism?

(Photo: ABC News)
(Photo: ABC News)

Definitions of terrorism matter. Even though there is no consensus definition in either the academic, policy, or law enforcement communities, definitions matter.

Here’s a few reasons why:

  • From an academic and analytical standpoint, we need clear definitions so that we can identify and study like cases. This is essential for generating knowledge that can help us understand why terrorism occurs, the means that terrorists employ, and the range of potentially effective responses available to policy makers.
  • From a policy standpoint, the options will be different depending on what motivates an actor to engage in any act of violence, including mass murder. In short, policies aimed at preventing, defending against, and responding to any act of violence will differ depending on whether the individual or group was acting out of criminal self-interest (like Colombian “narcoterrorism” or the more recent brutality unleashed by the Mexican drug cartels), idiosyncratic factors such as mental illness (for example the Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook shooters), or some political motivation (as in Oklahoma City and San Bernardino).
  • From a law enforcement perspective, at least in the US, what happened in Las Vegas would not be considered an act of terrorism, as federal law defines terrorism as acts involving links to designated foreign terrorist organizations. Timothy McVeigh, for example, did not face terrorism charges for the Oklahoma City bombing. The reasons why domestic terrorism is not designated as such under federal law are wrapped up in questions of First Amendment protections and a reluctance to consider imposing legal sanctions based on political or religious ideologies, even if they are used as justifications for violence.

So what is terrorism? By definition, terrorism is a political act.

Here’s the most basic definition that I use with my students:

Terrorism is the deliberate creation and exploitation of fear, through violence or the threat of violence, in the pursuit of political change.

Here’s a better, more detailed and nuanced, definition:

Terrorism is premeditated, politically, religiously, or socially motivated violence, or the threat of violence, against civilian targets by non-state actors, usually intended to influence an audience through the creation and exploitation of fear. In short, terrorism is a form of political theater designed to reach beyond the immediate victims of any given attack.

When we define terrorism as a form of political action, we can ask why groups and individuals choose that particular form — violence — over non-violent means in an attempt to produce a desired political outcome. It helps us understand how a group like the Army of God can emerge as a result of the perceived failure of non-violent groups like Operation Rescue to end the practice of abortion. Or how the inability of Students for a Democratic Society to end the Vietnam War through non-violent mass protest can lead to the emergence of the Weather Underground.

I think it matters that the media get it right insofar as the media has the ability to shape both public perceptions and policy responses.

If every act of mass killing is terrorism, then there is no substantive difference between Charles Whitman in the tower at the University of Texas, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold at Columbine High School, Wade Michael Page at the Sikh temple in Oak Creek, WI, or the Tsarnaev brothers at the finish line of the Boston Marathon.

And yet we know they were all driven to act by different motives and impulses.

Not every terrible act is an act of terrorism. Not every case of mass murder, no matter how disturbing or terrifying, is terrorism.

Until we know more about why Stephen Paddock did what he did — and we may never know — we cannot call what happened in Las Vegas on Sunday night terrorism.

It’s kind of like Vegas …

… in that what gets said when the recorder is off stays off the recorder. And hence off the record.

I was thinking about that today after finishing an interview with a contact I’ve talked to before. He’s a smart, energetic, friendly, and open man who was at one time a fairly highly placed member of the IRA but has since left the fold.  His distancing from the mainstream Republican movement was gradual but ultimately total, and his political work is now limited primarily to advocating on behalf of Republican prisoners and the occasional public criticism of Sinn Fein and its leadership. The Republican world is a small one and he remains well connected. In short he is a great source of information and insight, generous with his time, gracious, and someone I am lucky to know.

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My on-the-record interview with him went about 90 minutes or so, and when we were done and I shut the recorder off, he brought out the bottle of Irish whiskey and the conversation became more informal. Informal, but no less informative. We talked about American politics (he wanted to know what I thought of Ron Paul), our respective countries’ gun cultures, racism, global capitalism, Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, state surveillance, enhanced interrogation, and more.

We also talked about the changes in the operational and organizational dynamics of the IRA that took place between the 1970s and the 1990s, what it was like to fight the war within the prisons, how to smuggle contraband into the prisons (everything from fountain pens and tobacco to radios), personalities within the movement and how they got along (or didn’t) with each other, and so on.

None of what we talked about after the recorder went off can I use in my writing, not that anything that was said was out of step with our on-the-record conversation or named any individuals in any way that is not already part of the public record. But it does have the effect of broadening my knowledge and understanding, and the overall tenor of our conversation will work its way in to my professional output, whether on the printed page or in the classroom.

I find that these conversations are much of the reason that I come here. At this point, you could argue that field work on Northern Ireland is not really necessary. The ceasefires have held for nearly 20 years (more or less), the peace process has been slowly but steadily transforming into a real peace for 17 or 18 years. Seemingly endless reams of academic papers and books have been written and published, and my own modest contribution, when it comes, will only incrementally add to that. I’m under no illusions that my scholarly output will reshape the field.

And yet there is a fragility to the peace that I would not appreciate if I didn’t come here and talk to people like those I talked to today. There is an ordinariness to the people who did extraordinary things here (both good and bad) that I would not appreciate if I didn’t come and talk to them. There is a popular narrative about the type of people who become terrorists that I would not be able to challenge for my students if I didn’t come here and meet them and hear their stories.

So while what happens when the recorder turns off stays off the record, it doesn’t stay out of my mind or fail to inform my perspective.  And for my money that makes me both a better scholar and a better teacher.

 

 

Mass killers’ weapon of choice

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Seventeen people are dead and more than a dozen wounded in just the latest American mass shooting. Parkland, Fla., joins the sorry decades-long record of slaughter that has made ours a uniquely murderous society.

This isn’t even the first mass shooting of the year. As of Feb. 14 there have been 30 across the country. It’s not even the first school shooting of 2018. Before yesterday there had already been 17 other shootings at schools in the United States.

The weapon of choice in the massacre at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, and many of the most recent, and deadliest mass shootings that plague the United States, was the AR-15. USA Today has compiled the weapon’s bloody record:

  • Feb. 24, 1984: Tyrone Mitchell, 28, used an AR-15, a Stoeger 12-gauge shotgun and a Winchester 12-gauge shotgun to kill two and wound 12 at 49th Street Elementary School in Los Angeles before killing himself.
  • Oct. 7, 2007: Tyler Peterson, 20, used an AR-15 to kill six and injure one at an apartment in Crandon, Wis., before killing himself.
  • June 20, 2012: James Eagan Holmes, 24, used an AR-15-style .223-caliber Smith and Wesson rifle with a 100-round magazine, a 12-gauge Remington shotgun and two .40-caliber Glock semi-automatic pistols to kill 12 and injure 58 at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo.
  • Dec. 14, 2012: Adam Lanza, 20, used an AR-15-style rifle, a .223-caliber Bushmaster, to kill 27 people — his mother, 20 students and six teachers — in Newtown, Conn., before killing himself.
  • June 7, 2013: John Zawahri, 23, used an AR-15-style .223-caliber rifle and a .44-caliber Remington revolver to kill five and injure three at a home in Santa Monica, Calif., before he was killed.
  • March 19, 2015: Justin Fowler, 24, used an AR-15 to kill one and injure two on a street in Little Water, N.M., before he was killed.
  • May 31, 2015: Jeffrey Scott Pitts, 36, used an AR-15 and .45-caliber handgun to kill two and injure two at a store in Conyers, Ga., before he was killed.
  • Oct. 31, 2015: Noah Jacob Harpham, 33, used an AR-15, a .357-caliber revolver and a 9mm semi-automatic pistol to kill three on a street in Colorado Springs, Colo., before he was killed.
  • Dec. 2, 2015: Syed Rizwyan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, 28 and 27, used two AR-15-style, .223-caliber Remington rifles and two 9 mm handguns to kill 14 and injure 21 at his workplace in San Bernardino, Calif., before they were killed.
  • June 12, 2016: Omar Mateen, 29, used an AR-15 style rifle (a Sig Sauer MCX), and a 9mm Glock semi-automatic pistol to kill 49 people and injure 50 at an Orlando nightclub before he was killed.
  • Oct. 1, 2017: Stephen Paddock, 64, used a stockpile of guns including an AR-15 to kill 58 people and injure hundreds at a music festival in Las Vegas before he killed himself.
  • Nov. 5, 2017: Devin Kelley, 26, used an AR-15 style Ruger rifle to kill 26 people at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, before he was killed.
  • Feb. 14, 2018: Police say Nikolas Cruz, 19, used an AR-15-style rifle to kill at least 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.

The LA Times breaks down this morning some of the reasons why mass shootings are becoming deadlier, and how the AR-15, which according to the National Rifle Association is America’s most popular rifle, is intimately connected to that trend.

AR-15 rifles shoot small but high-velocity .223-caliber rounds that often shatter inside victims’ bodies, creating more devastating injuries than the wounds typically left by larger but lower-velocity handgun rounds.

Shooters also commonly use the rifles with 30-round magazines, which allow them to fire more rounds uninterrupted, compared with the smaller magazines commonly used in handguns.

We don’t yet know how the accused Florida killer, Nickolas Cruz, acquired his weapons and ammunition, but as I wrote following the mass killing in San Bernardino in 2015, we make it ridiculously easy to acquire the hardware needed to carry out slaughter. You can pick an AR-15 up at Walmart, or, if that might raise too many questions, from a private seller through one of many online firearms marketplaces. Bulk orders of ammunition, including hollow-point rounds, and the high capacity magazines to hold them, can also be ordered online from the privacy of your own home.

As long as we make it this easy, we’re going to keep seeing massacres like this happen.

This week in terrorism history: Jan. 22-28

Police outside Eagle Ridge Mall, Lake Wales, FLA. (Photo: fox35)
Police outside Eagle Ridge Mall, Lake Wales, FLA. (Photo: fox35)

 

Two homemade pipe-bombs went off  at a mall in central Florida on Sunday evening, causing little or no damage but prompting the evacuation of about 100 shoppers and staff. Police are seeking a “person of interest” described as a middle-aged white man with a heavy build, wearing a gray shirt and hat.

Police have so far declined to label the incident an act of terrorism, which has produced an inevitable reaction from some social media quarters:

Now I fully understand the sentiment at work here, the perception that authorities are quick to cry terrorism when a person of color, typically a Muslim or someone thought to be Muslim, is the perpetrator of some act of violence, but call it anything but when it’s white guy who’s responsible. As I’ve written about before, there’s research that backs up the perception.

But in this case, I’m with the cops. So far they’ve made the right call:

“There is nothing at this time to indicate this act was terrorism,” he said. “At this time, we are checking video surveillance cameras.”

When asked why this incident wasn’t being characterized as terror, (Lake Wales Police Deputy Chief Troy) Schulze said, “We don’t know what the person was trying to achieve.”

And that’s the rub. Unless and until we get some evidence that gives us insight into the motivation behind any act of violence, we can’t call it terrorism, regardless of the identity of the perpetrator. This is one of the key lessons that I try to convey to my students when I teach on terrorism.

I’ve written about this before, most recently following last fall’s horrific mass shooting in Las Vegas. Even now, after four months of intense investigation, police there are no closer to understanding why Stephen Paddock meticulously planned and executed his attack on concert goers from the window of his high-rise hotel room.

So, did a middle-aged white guy carry out an act of domestic terrorism in Florida last night? Maybe. But maybe not.

Now on to this week’s look back at terrorism history:

  • Jan. 22, 1997 — Martinton, Ill.: Authorities raid the home of accused Ku Klux Klan member Ricky Salyers, a former Marine, discovering 35,000 rounds of heavy ammunition, armor piercing shells, live ammunition for grenade launchers, and other military gear. He was also believed to be a member of Black Dawn, an underground group of far-right anti-government extremists inside the US military.
  • Jan. 23, 2001 — Yemen: A Yemeni airliner is hijacked with 91 passengers aboard, including the US ambassador.
  • Jan. 24, 2011 — Moscow: A suicide bombing at Domodedovo airport kills 36 and wounds 180. Imarat Kavkaz, a Chechen group, claims responsibility.
  • Jan. 25, 1976 — Lisburn, Northern Ireland: A bomb planted by Loyalist paramilitaries at the Hibernian Social Club kills two Catholic civilians.
  • Jan. 26, 2009 — Democratic Republic of the Congo: Attacks are carried out on several villages leaving 36 civilians dead. Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda are believed responsible.
  • Jan. 27, 1975 — London: The Irish Republican Army plants seven bombs at locations across the city, resulting in minimal damage or injuries. An IRA bomb goes off in Manchester, injuring 26 people.
  • Jan. 28, 1982 — Italy: Police rescue US Army Brigadier Gen. James Dozier who was kidnapped by the Red Brigades six weeks earlier.