Defining Terrorism

3 mins read

By Melinda Nilsson

Following the Las Vegas mass shooting — among the grieving, calls for gun control, and heated discussions — a debate about semantics arose. Should we call Stephen Paddock, the man who killed 59 people and injured hundreds more, a terrorist? The number of people who lost their lives outside Mandalay Bay was after all comparable to the number of lives lost in recent European terror attacks, and a great deal of American people undoubtedly feel terrorized following this horrifying act of violence. But does that justify calling it terrorism? Answering this question is trickier than one might think.

Many of the voices urging the government to brand Paddock a terrorist are doing so in the name of equality, arguing that the term terrorist is used liberally when it comes to criminals with Muslim backgrounds, but never in relation to white perpetrators. The voices opposed to this logic tend to argue along the lines of the Oxford Dictionary’s definition of the word:

“The unlawful use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims.”

According to this camp, Paddock would not be branded a terrorist, since his motives were not, at least based on current knowledge, political. Be that as it may, it is worth noting the ever present problem of equating Islamic backgrounds with political agendas. Fact is that not all Muslims who commit violent crimes do so with political intentions, although the viewpoint is common. However, the lack of motive does not settle the debate. According to Nevada law, terrorism is defined as follows:

“[…] any act that involves the use or attempted use of sabotage, coercion or violence which is intended to:

(a) Cause great bodily harm or death to the general population; or

(b) Cause substantial destruction, contamination or impairment of:

(1) Any building or infrastructure, communications, transportation, utilities or services; or (2) any natural resource or the environment.”

According to this definition, Paddock’s actions would in fact be classified as terrorism, since violence was used to “cause great bodily harm or death to the general population”. The US federal definition is trickier. Domestic terrorism is codified as violations of US law, within US territories, that:

 “appear to be intended—

(i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population;

(ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or

(iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping”

Paddock’s actions were intended to intimidate the Las Vegas concert-goers, but it is unclear as to whether he intended to have any effect on the government. This still leaves us in a grayish area, possibly more in favor of calling it terrorism than not. Regrettably, there is no uniform definition in the international community that one can look to, when national definitions are conflicting. UN uses of the term vary from requiring no motive at all, to the explicit motive of forcing the government or people to abstain from certain civil rights or actions. The EU definition is also more broad, as opposed to NATO’s which specifies political motives.

If looking at the various definitions of the word will not give us a definitive answer, we move from explanatory answers to more philosophical and moral arguments. The fact is, regardless of whether we call it terrorism or mass murder, the 59 deaths are no more or less significant. Prescribing a politically charged label to a horrifying act, with no clear motivation, only serves to divide people. In truth, the people calling for Paddock’s branding as a terrorist are in many cases the same people who detest that same branding of Muslims. In labeling the act, we enable partisan groups to assign the terrorist’s allegiance to one group or the other, and shift blame and responsibility off themselves onto the other party. This will only deepen the chasms between the U.S. political left and right, where every violent act committed by whites is seen as a point for the Democrats, and every non-white major crime a point for the Republicans.

Rather than focusing on the word, the U.S. and the world need to look to the causes of the acts themselves. Though he might not have had any political intentions, Paddock started a debate, and letting this attack become yet another forgotten tragedy in a long list of American gun deaths would be to squander an opportunity for change. Maybe then, terrorism, would be a word we need to use less and less, and the question of semantics could be put on the shelf. Now is the time for debating the second amendment, and its place in 2017.


Melinda Nilsson is a pol sci student fascinated by the twists and turns of American politics – perhaps an homage to her half American, half Swedish upbringing. She is a proud UF member (and Uttryck web editor) and dreams of living and working all around the world.



Image: Melinda Nilsson

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