Tuesday's attack in New York City — in which eight people died and nearly a dozen were injured when a car slammed into a bike path — was nearly immediately classified as a terrorist attack. In light of this news, many people may be wondering why New York City's attack was classified as terrorism and why the recent shooting in Las Vegas was not. According to experts, the legal differentiation stems from the motive behind the attack.
As a piece in The New Yorker recently pointed out, while there is no universal definition of terrorism, many experts, as well as the FBI, agree on general tenets that define a terrorist act — the most prominent of which is that it must have a political objective.
The New York attack was likely classified as terrorism almost immediately due to the fact that the attacker left a note inside his vehicle declaring allegiance to the Islamic State — an established terror group with a known political objective of establishing an Islamic caliphate. Even if the perpetrator of the New York attack acted alone and was not involved with the group, his declaration of allegiance to ISIS and its mission indicates a politically-driven motive, meriting a legal classification of terrorism.
In the case of the Las Vegas shooting, no clear motive of a political nature has been established, which is why the attack was not classified as terrorism. As Richard Cohen, president of the South Poverty Law Center, explained to Bustle for a previous article on the Las Vegas shooting:
Legally, an act of terrorism involves a dangerous act that is intended to coerce or intimidate a group of people or that it's intended to coerce or intimidate the government. ... 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 [the shooter], 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.
Indeed, police are trying to investigate the motive behind the Vegas shooting, making the hypothetical classification of the tragedy as terrorism challenging from a legal standpoint. Still, people were upset when Trump refused to refer to the Vegas attack as terrorism. As The New Yorker pointed out, though, asking the administration to classify the Vegas attack as terrorism won't solve the larger and more obvious problem: that white men, with easy access to guns, pose a greater threat to Americans' safety than "Muslims, immigrants, or even Islamic militants." Still, there's some merit to people's demands that Trump call the Las Vegas shooter a terrorist.
But even when a white man does carry out a terrorist attack, there is often an unfortunate racial double standard, according to Ibrahim Hooper, the national communications director for The Council on American-Islamic Relations. Hooper told Bustle in the Vegas shooting aforementioned article:
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. ... Unfortunately, that's the kind of double standard that we see.
Ultimately, experts agree that motive needs to be thoroughly assessed before legally characterizing something as a terrorist act. In other words, an incident should not merely be classified as terrorism because the perpetrator is a person of color — and terrorism should not be dismissed as a cause because the perpetrator is white.
Regardless of the legal boundaries of the term, though, it's important to recognize that the societal agreement on what constitutes terrorism may not necessarily match the legal definition of the term. And that's okay — both the Las Vegas shooting and the recent attack in New York City were terrorizing in their own right, even if one falls under the proper definition and the other does not.