The mass shooting in Las Vegas on Sunday night has again raised fears about terrorism. There’s much we don’t yet know. The Islamic State (ISIS) has claimed the attack, but the FBI claims that there is no international terrorism link. The attacker, Stephen Paddock, was 64 years old and white, fitting a stereotype of a right-wing terrorist more than a jihadist one. And he may just be a crazy nut. But regardless of Paddock’s particular pathology, the situation highlights how the United States treats similar forms of violence differently depending on the nature of the perpetrator.
Almost two months before, on August 12, 2017, James Alex Fields Jr. drove his car into a crowd of peaceful demonstrators in Charlottesville, killing Heather Heyer, one of the demonstrators. Heyer’s death came after a day of demonstrations in which armed neo-Nazis and Klansmen, including Fields, who bore the symbols of Vanguard America (a white supremacist, neo-Nazi organization), marched ostensibly to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate Civil War hero Robert E. Lee but really to trumpet their hateful ideas.
Fields’ act was treated as the crime it was: he was charged with second-degree murder and hit-and-run, along with several crimes related to the injuries of other victims. Yet given the political nature of the violence, and given the power of terrorism as a label, many have called for treating Heyer’s death as terrorism. Indeed, Fields’ use of a car to drive through a crowd resembles nothing more than the vehicle attacks that we’ve seen in Barcelona, Berlin, London, Nice, and other cities in the past two years. In turn, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions labeled Field’s attack “domestic terrorism,” which federal law defines as trying to intimidate a civilian population or affect government policy through violence in an area of U.S. territorial jurisdiction.
Fields’ attack is not the first time right-wing violence has raised questions about the terrorism label. After the 2015 attacks on a Planned Parenthood Planned Parenthood attack was terrorism, and civil rights activists widely criticized the fact that few media outlets were calling Dylann Roof, the perpetrator of the Charleston massacre, a terrorist.
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