Verify: Was the Las Vegas shooting terrorism?

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THE QUESTION

The Las Vegas shooting sparked a recurring debate about whether to label the act - the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history - terrorism.

Authorities continue to investigate what motivated the gunman, who killed at least 59 people and injured more than 500 Sunday night.

Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo described 64-year-old gunman Stephen Paddock, of Mesquite, Nev., as "a distraught person intent on causing mass casualties." Lombardo said Paddock was likely a "lone wolf."

When asked if the authorities believe the tragedy was an act of terrorism, Lombardo said, “No, not at this point. We believe it was a local individual. He resides here locally… We don’t know what his belief system was at this time.”

The chief of the FBI’s Las Vegas office disputed an Islamic State claim that the gunman was one of the militant group's soldiers. The chief said no connection to the militant group had been found.

"This is a crazed lunatic full of hate," Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman said. "This has been a hugely traumatic time for all of us."

President Trump called the attack "an act of pure evil."

Noticeably absent from such descriptions of the tragedy is the word “terrorism.”

The 9News Verify team looked into the definitions of terrorism to see if details of the Las Vegas shooting – as we currently know them – apply.

DICTIONARY DEFINITION

The number of people looking up the word “terrorism” spiked Oct. 2 after the Las Vegas shooting, according to Merriam-Webster.

The dictionary’s website states the definition of terrorism is, “the use of violent acts to frighten the people in an area as a way of trying to achieve a political goal.”

According to the website, the word was first used in reference to political violence committed by the revolutionary government of France during the French Revolution’s “Reign of Terror.”

But, “its use to refer to terrible violent acts without a clear political motive may constitute an emerging new sense of the word.”

However, the federal government does not share this evolving interpretation.

FEDERAL DEFINITION

It is important to note the definition of terrorism often comes down to motive.

In terms of federal law, “Terrorism includes the unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.”

According to this definition, even though the gunman killed at least 59 and wounded more than 500, the main consideration is the intention of the attacker.

Nader Hashemi, the director of the center for middle east studies at the University of Denver, said terrorism is not just any act of violence.

“If someone robs a bank and shoots someone in the process of robbing a bank, that’s not an act of terrorism,” Hashemi said. It’s an act of violence and many people can be killed, but if there is not a political connection to the act of violence then it shouldn’t be labeled as terrorism.”

NEVADA DEFINITION

But the “motive” aspect of terrorism is absent when it comes to the state of Nevada’s definition.

Nevada’s definition of an act of terrorism is “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.”

The federal definition is of terrorism is clearly more specific.

OTHER ASPECTS OF THE DEBATE

This debate is not exclusive to the Las Vegas shooting – it also surfaced when a white man attacked a congressional Republicans’ baseball practice in June, in August when an alleged white supremacist drove into counter protestors in Charlottesville, and when a white man opened fire in a historically black Charleston church.

Hashemi asks for people to consider how quickly they’re willing to apply the term “terrorism” before they know the motives - but do know the perpetrator is Middle Eastern or Muslim.

“That double standard is what gets many people upset – this rush to judgment and this rush to extrapolate to make generalizations about an entire group of people based on the actions of one member of that community,” Hashemi said. “We tend to do that when it comes to Muslims, we don’t do that when it comes to white people, and that’s a problem.”

BOTTOM LINE

It is still too early to say whether the shooting in Las Vegas constitutes an act of terrorism in accordance to the federal definition of terrorism.

That’s because a motive for the assailant has not yet been determined.

“He may have political causes or grievances that will be revealed, and if so, then I think at that time we can use the term terrorism,” Hashemi said. “He could just be a deranged individual and if that was the case, then I don’t think the term applies.”

© 2017 KUSA-TV


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