Sometimes a mass shooting is just a mass shooting

Before I get into the thesis behind this blog I must state that the title I chose should not be interpreted as dismissiveness over shootings.  Anytime innocent people are killed or wounded by someone with a firearm is tragic.  Not only are lives lost or compromised but the impact on family, friends and communities is a series of concentric circles.  So no, I am not trying to imply that gun deaths are not important.

But what is nevertheless true is that not all mass shootings are the same. Some are tied to criminal or gang enterprises and are, to some extent, cases of like killing like.  Others are clearly tied to terrorist groups or cells as we have seen in far too many places around the world.

And then there is Las Vegas.  In October 2017 Stephen Paddock barricaded himself in a hotel room in the Mandalay with a ridiculously large arsenal of guns and opened up on music festival goers from his 32nd floor perch, killing 58 and wounding more than 400 before turning one of his many firearms on himself.  His spree represented the single greatest mass shooting in the history of the US, a country that is the locus of far too many such tragedies – which should have led to a serious debate on guns in America, but typically (and sadly) did not.

One of the most searing questions surrounding the massacre was ‘Why’?  Why did Stephen Paddock elect to kill so many people?  As is usual there was the delving into his background, discussions of mental illness, etc. (but little on why one man was allowed to own so many guns).  The search for motivation, like the search for meaning in all things, is, after all, a primary human need.

Well, it turns out that we still don’t know why and it looks like we perhaps never will.  The investigation into the incident has been closed without the discovery of the motive(s).  This is a very unsatisfactory finding for many.  It certainly has not stopped the online world from conspiracies (there is a government cover up, etc.) as is unfortunately all too common in today’s world.

What we are left with then is an unsolved puzzle.  And one of the overarching questions still remains: was this a terrorist attack?  After all, Islamic State did issue a claim in which the terrorist group said Mr. Paddock was one of their ‘soldiers’.  As I have always said, though, an IS statement and a $1.50 gets you a cup of coffee at Tim Horton’s (a Canadian coffee and donut chain for those not of my country): i.e. take it with a grain of salt.

Bottom line: there is nothing to suggest that the shootings were an act of terrorism.  Yes, I know that for many the sheer scale of the massacre supports the view that it was terrorism: after all, people were terrified (and rightly so) and that is enough to earn a terrorism label.

But that is not what terrorism is, at least from a legal or scholarly perspective.  Terrorism is critically tied to motivation, whether that motivation is political, ideological or religious.  How can anyone say that the Las Vegas killings were terrorist in nature when we have NO IDEA what the motivation was and will likely never find out? Are we back to Judge Potter’s views on pornography (“I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description (i.e. pornography) , and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it.”)?

Many will take issue with my narrow views on what terrorism is and what it isn’t.  They are certainly entitled to their views.  Is it not important, however, that terms are defined so we can know what we are talking about?  If every time people are terrified we resort to calling an act of violence terrorist in scope where does that leave us? Are gang shootings terrorism?  Domestic abuse?  Bar brawls?  Drunk drivers (a recent incident in which a drunk driver went on to a beach on Lake Erie close to where I grew up was an excellent reminder that not all ‘vehicular attacks’ constitute terrorism)?  See where this gets us?

So no, not everything is terrorism.  While it certainly is understandable in 2018 that we tend to go there in the wake of a mass killing – after all there are real terrorist attacks somewhere in the world every day – we still need to be judicious and accurate in our use of the term.  In the end when everything is terrorism nothing is.



By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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