People Want To Label The Las Vegas Attack "Terrorism," But It's Far More Complicated Than You Think

When both President Donald Trump and Clark County Sheriff Joseph Lombardo stopped short of calling the Las Vegas massacre an "act of terrorism," many Americans were left wondering how a shooting rampage that left at least 58 concert-goers dead and another 515 injured could be anything but. Yet in an age where mass shootings are increasingly shaking Americans' sense of public safety, not all are acts of terrorism.

Defining terrorism is a muddy concept, in part because the word has a legal meaning as well as a social one. As Ibrahim Hooper, National Communications Director for The Council on American-Islamic Relations, tells Bustle: "It's terrifying, but you need a motive before you can determine that it's an act of textbook terrorism."

That's because as a federal charge, terrorism is defined as 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." Attacks by ideologically-motivated groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda fit the charge, and a spate of terrorist activity in the years after 9/11 molded Americans' understanding of the concept. But America's history of domestic terrorism is nearly as old as the country itself, and could shed light on why the term is so hotly debated.

David Becker/Getty Images News/Getty Images

A Brief History Of Homegrown Terrorism

While the term "terrorism" didn't enter into most Americans' lexicon until after 9/11, the country has a long, complex, and ugly history with politically and ideologically motivated violence.

"The Ku Klux Klan founded in the aftermath of the Civil War was America's original terrorist group," Richard Cohen, President of the South Poverty Law Center, tells Bustle. Through public lynching and other acts of violence, Klansmen and their allies sought to intimidate newly-emancipated former slaves from exercising their rights during the late 1800s and continued for decades.

DAVID MAXWELL/AFP/Getty Images

"Those are terrorist incidents," Cohen says. "They are intended to send a message to the black community that it better not get out of line."

In 1963, four members of the KKK bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing four young girls and injuring 22 others. In a eulogy, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called it "one of the most vicious and tragic crimes ever perpetrated against humanity." The funeral drew more than 8,000 people and marked a turning point in the Civil Rights Movement.

Other radical groups turned to acts of violence as a political scare tactic. In 1970, the Weather Underground issued a "Declaration of a State of War" against the U.S. government, engaging in a bombing campaign that targeted the U.S. Capitol, the Pentagon, and the State Department. In 1975, the group took credit for 25 bombings in a single year — and that total could be higher. The Jewish Defense League launched 44 bombings and assaults in the 1970s, and The Black Panthers carried out 24 bombings, hijackings and assaults over that same period of time. That decade, more than 150 airplanes were hijacked in the United States, often by radical foreign nationals. Police shootings nationwide hit a peak in the 1970s and have been trending downward ever since. And as recently as 2004, an Assistant Deputy Director of the FBI called The Animal Liberation Front and Earth Liberation Front "the most active criminal extremist elements in the United States."

"It makes everyone in the country feel unsafe whenever they're going to be in a public venue like a football game or a concert...from the public's point of view, it's certainly an act of terror."

"Our country has unfortunately lived with the terrorism for quite some time," Cohen says. "But I think the terrorism from the radical right is the oldest form of terrorism. It's still prevalent in our country, and it's likely that that form of terrorism will still be with us after we have dealt with, hopefully successfully, different forms of international terrorism."

What Makes An Act Of "Terrorism"

In the decade and a half since members of the terrorist group Al Qaeda used three hijacked planes to kill more than 3,000 Americans on a sunny Tuesday morning, a string of new threats have emerged: the rise of "lone wolf" gunmen who commit ideologically-driven crimes on American soil, a growing number of young "homegrown" terrorists radicalized by propaganda from overseas terror cells via social media, and an explosion of mass shootings in the United States, where gun ownership rates outpace every other nation per capita. With these threats collectively on the rise, soft targets like schools, movie theaters and concert venues are under increasingly tight security, and contributing to a national sense of unease: a hallmark of terrorism.

Alex Wong/Getty Images News/Getty Images

"We know that people fear crime that has a more random component to it," Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino and a former officer with the NYPD tells Bustle. "Striking out indiscriminately at innocent people that have no direct connection to the assailant is a real horrendously scary type of event."

"It makes everyone in the country feel unsafe whenever they're going to be in a public venue like a football game or a concert or the like," Cohen says. "I think it strikes fear in everyone's heart."

By that standard, Levin and Cohen say, mass shootings are forms of terrorism in the public's view. Whether the legal facts of a case are strong enough to try a suspect on terrorism charges is another question.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images News/Getty Images

...And what doesn't...

Dylann Roof, the 21-year-old self-declared white supremacist who shot and killed nine people at The Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in 2015, was charged with murder, attempted murder and use of a firearm, all in the commission of a hate crime — but not domestic terrorism. James A. Fields, who killed 32-year-old Heather Heyer when he drove a car into counter-protesters during a white supremacist rally Charlottesville, Virginia in August, currently has ten charges against him — and not one of them is terrorism. That can hinge on a number of legal specifications, including the weapon used to kill: something Cohen calls "a peculiar wrinkle in the law."

Cohen says the law requires proof of the use of a weapon of mass destruction, like the homemade bomb rigged by two brothers to detonate as runners crossed the finish line of the Boston Marathon. He says that's why prosecutors could level terrorism charges in Boston, but not in South Carolina, where the shooter used a handgun.

Darren McCollester/Getty Images News/Getty Images

The Las Vegas shooter may have used semi-automatic weapons rigged to sustain continuous fire to kill or injure nearly 600 people in a span of minutes. "I don't believe that that would be considered a weapon of mass destruction," Cohen says.

The affiliations, religious and political beliefs, and mental health of the shooter remain under investigation. The terrorist organization ISIS claimed responsibility for the carnage on Monday morning; investigators later rejected that statement as untrue.

"In an increasingly weaponized society, it's these angry loners that we also have to look out for that may not be connected to an ideology that is a coherent extremist ideology," Levin says.

"Legally, an act of terrorism involves a dangerous act that is intended to coercer or intimidate a group of people or that it's intended to coerce or intimidate the government," Cohen says. "And so that depends really on the motive of the perpetrator. So this person, we don't know a lot about him yet, Mr. Paddock, was he intended to intimidate people? Was he intended to coerce people? Or was he just angry over gambling losses? I don't know the answer to that at this point."

Does the word "terrorism" even matter?

The word "terrorism" itself is loaded, especially when an investigation focuses on an assailant's faith.

"We see it time and time again, that violence that has these kinds of motivations, when it's committed by a Muslim, it's automatically called an act of terrorism, and if it's done by a white supremacist group, or Neo-Nazis, or racists or that kind of thing, it's seen as an individual act that's not connected to anything else and other motives are sought and other labels are applied," Hooper says. "Unfortunately, that's the kind of double standard that we see."

The deadly massacre in Las Vegas has reignited a national debate on how to apply the term in an age of mass shootings, which might not meet the legal definition of "terrorism" but experts say, have the same practical effect on the public.

Whether or not the word "terrorism" is used in a legal or social setting, Cohen says it's necessary to look beyond the label.

"An understanding will maybe help us point to policy solutions to make it less likely that similar acts would occur in the future," Cohen says.