The Benefit of the Doubt: White Supremacy and the Las Vegas Shooting

(Audrey Jang • The Student Life)

I cannot think of many things more terrifying than someone indiscriminately spraying a crowd with bullets from a 32nd floor hotel room, killing at least 58 and injuring over 500. I cannot begin to fathom the fear and confusion of those that survived this most recent massacre. 

Before I continue, I want to pay homage to the lives lost in this massacre. I do not intend to use the deaths and injuries of so many people as a platform for political discussion. However, I see a pressing need to address the discrepancies in how we talk about these types of events.

U.S. law enforcement and government leaders have yet to use the term “terrorism” to describe the events of Oct. 1 in Las Vegas, Nevada. In a press conference, Donald Trump called the slaughter “an act of pure evil,” but he did not call it an act of terror. He did not name the perpetrator a terrorist.

Technically, “terrorism” is defined by the motivation behind the act. The U.S. penal code defines “terrorism” as violence committed to intimidate or coerce political action or a civilian population.

As of Thursday, Oct. 5, the motives for the slaughter were unclear. They may never be clear. We may never know why Stephen Paddock did what he did.

The fact that there is even speculation as to whether or not this was terrorism, however, is what I want to focus on. Had this act been committed by a non-white individual, I have little doubt that headlines and press conferences would be publicizing the words “terror,” “terrorism,” and “terrorist.”

Trump, along with other U.S. leaders, has been quick to label other tragedies as “terrorist” events. Twitter user Miqdaad Versi compiled a preliminary list of Trump’s Twitter responses to various events, organized by the identity of perpetrators and victims.

It is telling: Trump never misses an opportunity to perpetuate Islamophobia. Trump labels public violence committed by Muslim (or presumed-Muslim) perpetrators – especially when the victims are in a Western country – as “acts of terror." The word “terror” is absent in his reactions to violence committed by white perpetrators.

White supremacy creates an environment wherein white people, particularly white men, can commit more violence than any other demographic. However, people of Middle Eastern descent and Muslims are disproportionately profiled. White supremacy immunizes perpetrators like Paddock from the label “terrorist.”

Paddock will be labeled as an anomaly. His actions are a surprise, an aberration from his usually good character. Already, articles describe Paddock’s peaceful, relatively quiet life “before the massacre.” This kind of coverage not only humanizes Paddock, but also absolves him. This kind of reporting encourages the reader to focus more on Paddock as a person, rather than any type of accountability for his horrendous crime.  

On the contrary, when a non-white person commits a crime, media coverage and political commentary rarely offer multi-dimensional descriptions. The news hardly focuses on the perpetrator’s life before the crime, and if it does, it focuses on the “signs” pointing to the perpetrator’s inherently criminal nature.

When a person of color commits a crime resulting in injury or death, regardless of the perpetrator’s intention, it is automatically deemed an act of terrorism.

White supremacy functions in this way – it allows white people to retain some aspect of their humanity, no matter how atrociously they may act. It protects a white murderer from ever being representative of other white people, while it essentializes a person of color’s actions as somehow characteristic of an entire race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, or language.

Since 9/11, white-supremacist, non-Muslim extremists have killed about twice as many people as Muslim extremists. The numbers simply negate the dominant, Islamophobic narrative of “terrorism” that people like Trump rely on.

As long as this country remains steeped in white supremacy, Stephen Paddocks will continue receiving the benefit of the doubt.

If, in the coming weeks, an investigation reveals a motive behind Paddock’s actions, let us keep in mind that such an investigation is a privilege. There are many individuals, guilty of terrorism or not, that are not afforded this concession.