What's a 'Lone Wolf'? It's the Special Name We Give White Terrorists
We have a double standard in the United States when it comes to talking about terrorism. The label is reserved almost exclusively for when we’re talking about Muslims.
Consider Stephen Craig Paddock, the shooter in Sunday’s massacre in Las Vegas. Is he a terrorist? Well, the authorities aren’t calling him one, at least not yet.
This is all the more remarkable because Paddock’s actions clearly fit the statutory definition of terrorism in Nevada. That state’s law defines terrorism as “any act that involves the use or attempted use of sabotage, coercion or violence which is intended to cause great bodily harm or death to the general population.”
Paddock shot and killed at least 59 people and injured more than 500 others. If that doesn’t qualify as a textbook definition of Nevada’s terrorism law, I don’t know what does.
Yet, when asked at a press conference in Las Vegas if the shooting was an act of terrorism, Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo replied: “No. Not at this point. We believe it’s a local individual. He resides here locally,” suggesting that all terrorism is foreign in nature.
Lombardo didn’t call Paddock a terrorist, but he did label him a “lone wolf,” which in our lexicon is the special name we use for “white-guy terrorist.”
Nor is this oversight limited to Lombardo. Las Vegas’ mayor, Carolyn Goodman, also described Paddock not as a terrorist but as “a crazed lunatic, full of hate.” No doubt many other people will repeat the same sentiment in the days to come.
And Donald Trump, who craves every opportunity to utter the words “radical Islamic terrorism,” avoided any mention of the word “terrorist” when discussing the tragic events of Sunday night.
Speaking from the White House, the president instead called the mass shooting “an act of pure evil.” Rather than offering sensible policy changes, such as greater gun control, the president had other ideas. He thinks we should pray more.
Paddock’s act though is, by definition, terrorism. Even under the stricter federal definition of terrorism, Paddock’s murderous rampage should qualify. The federal code defines “domestic terrorism” in part as “activities that appear intended to affect the conduct of government by mass destruction”. It’s hard, if not impossible, to understand how committing one of the largest mass shootings in American history is not “intended to affect the conduct of government”.
But one reason, beyond outright racism, why white people are less frequently charged with terrorism than Muslims in the United States lies with the little-known fact that while federal law does define “domestic terrorism”, it does not codify “domestic terrorism” as a federal crime. (At least 33 states do, however, have anti-terror legislation.) This is partly out of concern that such a statute could go a long way toward criminalizing thought and trampling on the first amendment.
Federal law does contain “hate crime” provisions, but in our present war on terror, it’s one thing to be convicted of “hate” and quite another of “terrorism”. Someone who hates is considered a bad person. Meanwhile, in the eyes of many, someone who is a terrorist doesn’t even deserve to be human.
What this legal reality translates into is a world where the vast majority of the high-profile terrorism prosecutions brought in this country, the ones announced by the justice department with great fanfare and heralding a safer future, basically never revolve around domestic terrorism.
This became clear recently when the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, surprisingly said that the death of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, Virginia at the hands of a white nationalist sympathizer constituted “domestic terrorism”. But lawyers repeatedly pointed out that at the federal level, domestic terrorism “doesn’t constitute an independent crime or trigger heightened penalties”, according to the website justsecurity.org.
Instead, the high-profile terrorism cases that do trigger heightened penalties are the foreign terrorism cases that almost always involve Muslims, especially since the justice department’s prosecutions of international terrorism is determined by a list of some 60 designated “foreign terrorist organizations”, most of whom are active in Muslim-majority countries. Even material support cases directly related to domestic terrorism are rarely prosecuted in federal court.
A bias, in other words, is embedded in the structure of our laws and how we prosecute them. Foreign terrorism prosecutions put the focus on Muslims and foreign conflicts, while domestic terrorism gets downplayed in our federal courts.
Any predisposition one may have already had that it’s Islam that produces terrorism is thus repeatedly reinforced in who gets prosecuted under our laws. And those attitudes, bolstered by the law, become mainstream in our news media, on our television screens, and in our day-to-day conversations with friends and neighbors.
But in the United States far more people, by orders of magnitude, are killed by gun violence than terrorism carried out in the name of Islam. We just don’t pay attention.
In 2017 alone, there have been 273 mass shootings, about one a day, and 11,671 deaths due to gun violence, according to Gun Violence Archive. Those numbers may surprise you. They did me, and they’re abysmal.
In our society, the federal government often directs the attentions of the people through their policies and priorities. Today, especially under Donald Trump, federal authorities seem even less interested in talking about domestic terrorism.
When a mosque in Minnesota was bombed earlier this year, for example, the White House didn’t even bat an eyelid. Meanwhile, acts like Trump’s Muslim ban reinforce the idea that anyone, anyone at all who comes from one of the barred countries – almost all of whom are Muslim-majority – ought to be considered a security threat.
We should explain to our government that the interests of justice are served when the terrorism label is fairly and accurately applied.
We should point out to the government that, in their zeal to make the country safe from outsider threats, they are enabling domestic threats to proliferate. And we must hope that this administration in particular will see our warnings as a caution and not as a plan.