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Las Vegas shooting doesn't classify as 'terrorism'; Donald Trump's refusal to call it so is justified

As Americans recuperate from the initial shock and grief of Sunday's shootout in Las Vegas that killed 59 people, there has been a strong demand of condemning the crime as "an act of terrorism". President Donald Trump has been criticised widely for not "calling it what it is".

From singer Ariana Grande, whose concert in Manchester was also hit by a similar attack in May, to everyday Americans, people are urging US authorities to label the act as "terrorism". There's widespread condemnation of Trump for shrugging the Las Vegas shooter off as just another American psycho, while the President of United States is known to blast his predecessors and opponents for failing to "call it what it is" when the perpetrator was brown-skinned and/or a Muslim.

What's in a name?

The longing to label the massacre as something the global community absolutely detests is palpable and understandable. The term "terrorism", going by its generic understanding, elevates the perpetrator as more than a mere criminal; s/he is an enemy of the State for purposely waging a war against its citizens.

There's also the sense that the resistance in terming the Las Vegas shooting as "terrorism" stems from the fact that the shooter was a white male with no known links to Islam. Trump, a conservative, is often perceived to go softer on violence perpetrated by Right-wing groups and white supremacists, though he is unflinching in his condemnation of "radical Islam", a phenomenon which we are fond of calling "selective intolerance" here in India.

 Las Vegas shooting doesnt classify as terrorism; Donald Trumps refusal to call it so is justified

File image of the scene of the shooting. AP

However, in the quest to ascertain parity in how we assess Muslim and non-Muslim acts of violence, one also runs the risk of recreating the same kind of overreach to unresolved crimes that we often attach to Islamic terror, as this piece in Daily News argues.

Besides, there's also a sense of greater public approval when a deadly incident such as this is treated as an act of terror, because there's wider global attention to it. There are separate laws to deal with terrorism and a dedicated State policy. Elections are fought and won on claims of waging "war against terrorism".

All this ascribes a sense of achieved justice to the people aggrieved and shocked by violence unleashed on innocent people.

But while perception is important, so is language.

There's a small nuance that should be highlighted. That people are terrorised and massive casualties have been caused doesn't necessarily mean that an act of terrorism has been committed. Terrorism, in terms of defining its scope, is often taken as an act of violence against civilians committed with a political or religious motive.

US federal law defines terrorism 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".

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) defines a terrorist as an "individual who seeks to join the ranks of foreign fighters traveling in support of the Islamic State and also homegrown violent extremists who may aspire to attack the US from within".

Here, too, the obvious implication is that the term "terrorism" requires political or religious objective.

Louise Richardson, a political scientist who specialises in the study of terrorism, also stresses upon the need to determine the motivation behind the crime, before labelling it as terrorism. Richardson defines it as "deliberately and violently targeting civilians for political purposes" in her book What Terrorists Want: Understanding the Enemy, Containing the Threat.

According to her, their motivations can be summed up as "revenge, renown, reaction".

So far, no such objective has surfaced in the case of the shooter, Stephen Paddock, whose brother termed him as "just a guy" who may have "snapped or something". Even the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department confirmed that so far they haven't uncovered any known political or religious motivation.

However, the Nevada state's law defines terrorism as any act that "involves the use or attempted use of sabotage, coercion or violence which is intended to cause great bodily harm or death to the general population". What happened in Las Vegas may fall under this purview but defining the scope of terrorism, as it turns out, has been disputed and debated across international community and a widely accepted definition still eludes us.

The conundrum of definitions

Richardson explores the debate on what can be termed terrorism, and why it still remains unsettled. "Lots of people are called 'terrorists' by their enemies, of course. That doesn't mean they all are," an article in The Christian Science Monitor quotes her as saying.

Besides, there seems to be a lack of consensus on the definition. There are 14 global treaties on fighting terrorism, yet a common definition is unavailable. And this remains the reason why the Comprehensive Convention Against International Terrorism (CCIT) remains stuck.

India too has argued that there is a need for a convention that could deal with all forms of terrorism, in all countries, affecting all States, and which could go beyond bombings. India took the initiative to come up with its own draft of such a convention in 1996 but it was only in 2007 that a draft which has reasonably widespread acceptance emerged, according to an article in Gateway House. However, various countries continue to have vastly different views on that old question "what is terrorism".

One of the biggest disagreements in coming up with an all-encompassing definition is that all countries view it through the lens of their own national and sub-national interests, rather than as a common global problem. The article said that one of the biggest areas of disagreement in framing a common definition is over whether acts committed by "national liberation movements" should be explicitly excluded. Doing so would include the Kashmir militancy, and also the Palestine-Israel conflict.

There are also far-reaching concerns on international humanitarian law, which inadvertently overlaps with the issue. What, for instance, should be the stand on "State-sponsored terrorism". The term clearly has different definitions for different countries, with some of most contrasting versions emerging from South Asia itself.

"Latin American countries wanted the draft to cover 'state terrorism'. And western countries, including the US, wanted the draft to exclude acts committed by military forces of states during peacetime," an article in The Indian Express states.

The last draft was submitted in 2013, and many countries are still not satisfied. Some countries, for instance, want the right to self-determination as set out in the United Nations charter included in the preamble, according to the article. Some feel that the draft does not adequately distinguish between movements for a right to self-determination and national liberation from terrorism. In any case, an overreaching definition of act of terrorism is nowhere in view.

Therefore, until US authorities manage to prove that Paddock's actions were motivated by white supremacy or Right-wing ideology, or any other political/ religious ideology, Trump's decision to refrain from terming it "terrorism" seems warranted.

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Updated Date: Oct 04, 2017 20:12:04 IST