The unspoken white privilege in being characterized as a “lone wolf” gunman.
On the evening of Sunday, October 1 in Las Vegas, a gunman opened fire on a crowd at a country music concert from the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay hotel. So far, the death toll is recorded at 59, with hundreds more injured. The emotional and psychological damage cannot be quantified.
Some media outlets are reporting on this as “the deadliest mass shooting” in U.S. history.
Here are some details of the attack:
- The shooting took place at a country music concert in downtown Las Vegas.
- The gunman was Stephen Paddock – a 64 year old white man.
- Paddock was found dead by police in his Mandalay Bay hotel room, where he was harboring a 23-weapon stockpile.
- Thus far, the FBI has determined no connection with an international terrorist group, and police say Paddock acted alone.
- Paddock was a retired accountant, and a real estate investor.
- He was also a high-stakes gambler and wired thousands of dollars to the Philippines a few days before the shooting.
Media Coverage of Paddock
Police told CNN they have not labeled this attack as domestic terrorism because they have yet to determine Paddock’s motives.
In several media interviews with people who knew Paddock, most describe him as a reclusive “loner” who showed no signs of being interested in or capable of this kind of attack.
The LA Times reports, “Investigators have all but dismissed a claim by Islamic State that Paddock was a recent convert to Islam acting at the group’s direction. Law enforcement authorities seized computer hard drives from Paddocks’ Mesquite home and are examining dozens of weapons taken from the hotel suite and the home along with explosive material found in his vehicle and residence.”
Shaun King of The Intercept writes, “While the blood was still congealing on the streets of Las Vegas, USA Today declared in a headline that Paddock was a “lone wolf.” And yet an investigation into his motivations and background had only just started. Police were only beginning to move to search his home and computers. His travel history had not yet been evaluated. No one had yet thoroughly scrutinized his family, friends, and social networks.”
King raises an important point about the media’s reluctance to call a mass shooting by a white assailant a “terrorist attack” — an impulse that is entirely opposite in cases of attacks carried out by people of color, or those identifying with the Muslim faith.
Media Portrayals of Shooters are Based on Their Race
To be a white shooter is to be an anomaly requiring further investigation. Your mental health is questioned, and your past is analyzed for signs of trauma. We saw this with media coverage of Dylann Roof, a white gunman who killed nine African Americans inside of their church in 2015. We also saw this with reports on Adam Lanza, who opened fire in an elementary school in 2012, killing 20 children and six adults.
To be a black or brown shooter is to be inherently evil — you are quickly labeled a terrorist or highly suspected of sympathizing with a terrorist organization, and as soon as that label is assigned, no further questions are asked. Your humanity is not defended and there is no effort to explain why you committed acts of violence, because your identity is perceived as explanation enough.
From a compiled database of mass shootings in the U.S. from 1982-2017, Mother Jones found that an overwhelming majority were committed by white gunmen.
Research done by the University of Missouri-Columbia found that “media portrayals of public shooters vary based on the race of the shooter, regardless of the circumstances of the shooting.” The study involved content analysis of 170 stories on mass shootings published in five major national newspapers from 2008-2016. Here are some of the notable findings:
- “Terrorist” was used 35 times: describing Muslim shooters 37% of the time, black shooters 34% of the time, and white shooters 17% of the time.
- “Mental illness” was used 46 times: 80% of which were used to describe white shooters, 16% described black shooters, and 4% described Muslim shooters.
“Stories about white shooters were much more likely to only include objective facts, such as the time, date and place of the shooting. However, stories about shooters of color were much more likely to include subjective facts, such as aggravating circumstances that might have caused the shooting.”
Narrowly Defining “Terrorism” as a Political Tool
The legal definition of domestic terrorism in the United States is: “activities that a) involve acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any State; b) appear to be intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population, to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion, or to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination or kidnapping, and; c) occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States.
In a post 9/11 era, the perceived political intent behind an attack is essential when naming an act of violence “terrorism” — it must be seen as explicitly anti-American (used interchangeably with anti-democracy and anti-freedom). Further, terrorism in America has become equated with Islam. So when a white, non-Muslim indiscriminately guns down hundreds of people on U.S. soil, we struggle assigning them this title that has been reserved for those we’ve classified as anti-American.
Whiteness is inherently American, and reflecting back on our nation’s history, so too is mass violence inflicted by white men. When the motive behind a mass shooting doesn’t appear to be a political “threat” to American democracy and ideals, but nonetheless takes the lives of dozens of innocent victims and “intimidates a civilian population” through instilling fear in Americans, why don’t we call it terrorism?
It’s about the color of the hand that pulls the trigger.