Two weeks after the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history, officials have not been able to determine the motives of gunman Stephen Paddock.
Paddock was not affiliated with any religious or political groups, and his family members seem genuinely stunned by the attack. The deceased gunman had no history of mental illness or patterns of erratic behavior.
Major news outlets humanized Paddock as a common, small-town native who coincidentally doubles as the most lethal gunman in the country.
While the nation expressed its grief, Twitter users denounced the blanketed headlines as racist and Islamophobic. If the shooter had been a person of color or a Muslim, some argued, the shooting would have quickly been labeled as terrorism.
What is terrorism?
Dr. Mia Bloom, professor of Communication and Middle Eastern Studies at Georgia State, teaches the definition of terrorism provided by the U.S. Department of State.
“[Terrorism is] the deliberate targeting of civilians in order to disseminate or spread a political message,” Bloom said.
The political message is not bound to a particular party or religion, but must be present to distinguish terrorism from some mass casualty attack, according to Bloom.
“By focusing on tactics rather than ideology, we just look for what they did. Regardless of who did it and regardless of who they did it against,” Bloom said.
“Terrorism” was first used during the French Revolution to describe actions committed against a state or state officials. Vera Zasulich was the first person tried for terrorism, prosecuted in 1877 for an assassination attempt on a local governor.
“She was accused of attempted murder, and she said, ‘I’m not a murderer, I’m a terrorist.’ A terrorist was a good thing,” Bloom said. “During the course of the trial, she was found innocent, and the crowd lifted her onto their shoulders and marched her out of the courthouse.”
Motivation for joining terrorist groups
While the gravity of the term has evolved, the reasons for terrorism are relatively commonplace.
Terrorist organizations provide members with meaning in life. These groups exploit a vacancy or dissatisfaction felt by members, and provide them with a renewed purpose.
“The kind of thing that motivates an individual to join a terrorist group may be very similar to what makes someone join a fraternity,” Bloom said. “That’s the part that’s really hard to comprehend, because then it makes joining a terrorist group seem far less exotic and weird and different.”
Bloom identified push and pull factors that move potential members towards terrorist groups. Push factors include discontent with a culture, social immobility, or mistreatment. Pull factors include the perceived benefits of joining a group, like the street credibility members gained in the Irish Republic Army, according to Bloom.
There are two ways people initially become involved in terrorist groups. First, nepotism extends to terrorist circles. Families often join together through their connections with existing members. Second, terrorists identify lone-wolves who are usually isolated and lonely. Organizations recruit these individuals through a process called love-bombing, where members of an organization will overwhelm an individual with positive feelings and a sense of desire.
“You isolate the person from the realization that the terrorist group is terrible, and now they have all these positive associations with the group,” Bloom said.
Religious converts join terrorist groups at the highest rates, according to Bloom. Groups like ISIS are attracted to converts because these individuals provide better access to their homelands.
“Terrorist organizers and leaders, they look for these people because they look like you, they’ve got blonde hair and blue eyes, they blend in, and [terrorists] find [converts] very useful,” Bloom said.
Although Paddock was not politically motivated, he would have made the ideal terrorist, which explains why ISIS has tried to claim responsibility for the shooting multiple times.
“It conveys the message of ‘Here’s someone who looks like you, from your culture, he’s with us now,’” Bloom said.
Paddock’s motive would determine his qualification as a terrorist. While politically motivated groups like the Ku Klux Klan are absolutely considered terrorists groups, according to Bloom, Paddock is not a terrorist.
“Since his father was on the FBI Most Wanted list for awhile, he wanted to outdo daddy. Like he could just have daddy issues,” Bloom said. “We really don’t know. Sometimes crazy is just crazy.”
What’s in a name?
I think the discussion on race and religion is definitely warranted. Any sign of an awrah or a hijab might have led to declarations of war. But I think the obscure headlines characterize our inability to process the tragedy in Las Vegas.
We can’t rationalize the shooting in our minds. Paddock wasn’t a political extremist; he didn’t subscribe to some cultish religion; he wasn’t even officially crazy.
Paddock was a human being like you and me. Obviously, there was some disconnect between that shared humanity and his actions. But I think Paddock is a reminder that, as humans, we’re capable of great evil.
Debates on gun laws, politicians’ thoughts-and-prayers tweets, even the ways we classify Paddock are attempts to distract from that reality.
We look at Paddock, an average guy who did something unthinkable, and we’re afraid of seeing ourselves.