Language Use in Mass Killings

Before getting into the main point of this post, I want to send my sincere condolences to all of those who have been affected by the mass shooting in Las Vegas on Sunday, the families of those killed and injured, and the first responders who rapidly got to the scene and helped save countless lives. I am not a fan of the “thoughts & prayers” line, but I have definitely been keeping the victims and survivors of this atrocity in my heart as I have been processing the scarce information that has been released regarding the event.


As I have been reading many articles and opinion pieces following this horrific mass killing, I have seen a consistent thread in many of them, particularly those from left-leaning or liberal media outlets: the fact that this event has not yet been labeled as ‘terrorism’, and the use of the term ‘lone wolf’ to describe the shooter, who I will not be naming in this post*. A good number of these articles claim that the non-use of the ‘terrorist’ moniker is rooted in racism, and that the ‘lone wolf’ term is almost exclusively utilized in the context of white male perpetrators. Some of these articles make good points, especially that the media tend to jump to the ‘terrorist’ language quite quickly when it turns out that the perpetrator of a violent act is an adherent of Islam. I, however, disagree with most of their other comments, especially in relation to this specific act which occurred on Sunday night in Las Vegas.

As of this writing, on October 3, 2017, we do not know anything about the shooter’s motivations, rationale, or potential background when it comes to why he decided to carry out this horrific act of violence on the innocent crowd watching a country music festival 32 stories below. It is clear that there was plenty of pre-planning that went into this act, as the gunman had 23 firearms in his hotel suite at the Mandalay Bay and multiple firing positions. Many citizens wonder why, after 59 people have died and over 500 have been injured, this isn’t being called a terrorist attack. There’s a relatively simple answer to that question, but it is one that may not make angry people feel any better.

‘Terrorism’, by law, has a specific definition and labeling something an ‘act of terrorism’ has specific consequences for the investigation and any criminal trials going forward (there may be no trial in this case as this shooter killed himself at the scene). As set out in the US PATRIOT Act, ‘terrorism’ is defined as “activities within the United States that . . . involve acts dangerous to human life that. . . appear to be intended– (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping.” That is a very clear definition, and it is one that this specific perpetrator has not yet met, as we have no indication whatsoever of the man’s motives. To call this terrible murderous spree an ‘act of terrorism’ is to ascribe a motive to it that we simply cannot do at this point due to lack of information. It very well may turn out that the killer did have a political motive, and this could properly be called ‘terrorism’, but jumping to that conclusion is irresponsible at this early time.

Las Vegas Shooting 2
Crowds running from the scene of the shooting in Las Vegas, NV.    Image credit: Heavy.com

Labeling a mass shooting as an ‘act of terrorism’ also changes the dynamics of the investigation of said incident. Right now, this crime is being treated as a mass homicide investigation by the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, and their investigation is being supported by state and federal resources on the ground. If this was instead declared a terrorist act, the investigation would shift to being led by the federal government investigators, likely the FBI, as terrorism is generally a federal-level crime (although Nevada does have a state-level terrorism charge). Even in incidents that most people generally regard as domestic ‘terrorism’ (think Timothy McVeigh, Dylann Roof), the perpetrator may not be charged with a specific terrorist offense. That is because federal terrorism charges must be related to a specific terrorist organization, most of which are Islamist groups like al Qaeda or Islamic State. Both of the criminals I just mentioned were convicted of other federal crimes, but were not charged with terrorism, as they were not related to one of those external terrorist groups (that does not mean they received lesser sentences, indeed McVeigh was executed). This is different than in the case of the Boston Marathon bombers, who were charged with terrorist offenses as they were related to overseas terrorist groups. Language in this case not only has ramifications in how we describe something, but in how it is actually investigated, understood, and eventually prosecuted.

The term ‘lone wolf’ has also been in the news during the media coverage of this atrocity, as the shooter was seemingly acting alone in his killing spree. Multiple criticisms of the coverage have stated that the term has been used almost exclusively for white men, or that it was applied to this perpetrator too soon. Both criticisms are completely wrong. The origins of the term ‘lone wolf’ go back to the 1990s, and individual violent actors since then have been labeled with the term, regardless of their racial background. In an article from 2003, both white mass murderer Timothy McVeigh and black serial killer John Muhammad (DC Sniper) were used as examples of ‘lone wolves’. That same article primarily discusses the threat from ‘lone wolves’ radicalized by al Qaeda carrying out attacks in the US; most of the people they describe are Muslims of Arab or Middle-Eastern descent, not whites. There are also more recent examples of non-whites being labeled ‘lone wolves’, in the cases of Omar Mateen, who killed 49 at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, FL, and Micah Xavier Johnson, who killed multiple police officers in Dallas, TX. ‘Lone wolf’ is meant to describe a type of perpetrator or attack, to let the public know that the attack was not planned by a larger group or cell of plotters, and that the person who carried out the violence was likely self-radicalized or otherwise had a somewhat personal motive to the violence. ‘Lone wolf’ has no racial connotation or meaning, and has not only been applied to whites in the past. It may seem as though it is applied to whites more often, but that is likely due to the fact that white men carry out the vast majority of mass shootings, and most mass shootings are by ‘lone wolves’.

Language use is incredibly important when talking about anything, and is even more critical when discussing something as sensitive as a mass killing event. People are generally too quick to jump to conclusions in a case like this, when there is little available information and we all want to gain a sense of closure, or more understanding of what might drive a person to do something so heinous. Unfortunately, we may never truly understand what made this shooter decide to take so many lives on Sunday night, but we can choose to be cautious with our language when discussing it, because the words we use are not consequence-free. If we want our leaders to speak clearly and carefully, we should be doing the same thing.


*I do not like to name the perpetrator of mass violence in the immediate aftermath of said violence, as I believe that this naming gives them the attention and publicity that they were seeking when they carried out their heinous act. I will generally refer to the perpetrator as such, or as the ‘shooter’ or ‘killer’.

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