WASHINGTON, October 3, 2017 — Before he became a revolutionary, young Josef Dzhugashvili was a thief. He helped plan bank robberies, to be more precise. He was a thief in the cause of revolution, but it was common crime and wouldn’t reflect well on a hero of the Revolution. Thus when he became Stalin, he ruthlessly blotted out any memory of who and what he’d been.
Stalin would happily have accepted the label “terrorist.” It has a grim cachet to it, a romanticism that appeals to the morally stunted and emotionally immature. A terrorist represents a cause and instills dread as a faceless, nameless wolf among the sheep.
Stephen Paddock was a killer. If he’d been Muslim or Arab, he might be a terrorist. If he were a Klansman or wore a MAGA cap, he might be a domestic terrorist. If he were black, we might call him a BLM terrorist. But the odds are, he was simply a killer.
As a killer he’s contemptible; as a mass killer he’s a monster. But he’s not a terrorist. He’s just an aberration, a sick and crazy man acting on his own, not as a representative of his religion or his race. Paddock might have preferred to be remembered as a terrorist, or even a domestic terrorist, but he forgot to shout “death to infidels” or wear a MAGA cap.
There’s a great deal of interest in assigning him the correct label. ISIS tried to claim him as one of theirs, but there’s no evidence yet that he’d converted to Islam. Some left wing bosoms are heaving in the hope that a MAGA cap will turn up.
There’s power in the word “terrorist.” If it could be pinned to Paddock, it would make him an object of fear (the hope of ISIS) and the representative of a group (the hope of people who want him to be a crypto-Muslim or a Trump supporter). Terrorists show decent people how depraved the terrorist’s philosophy, religion or race is. Terrorists also yank the chains of government and capture the attention of police agencies. Terrorists have power.
The eagerness of people to label Paddock a terrorist goes far to explain why we ought to retire the word. Donald Trump and conservative radio talk-show hosts castigated President Obama for not being sufficiently promiscuous with “terrorism.” They wanted to hear the words “Islamic terrorism” from his lips as ardently as al Qaeda and ISIS did. No one has wanted to hear raw descriptions of moist and engorged body parts on the telephone as desperately as Trump, Rush and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi wanted to hear those words: “Islamic terrorism.”
On this matter President Trump should take a lesson from his predecessor: Don’t use the word “terrorism.”
The threat of being killed at a concert is scary. But when it happens at the hands of a sick and pathetic loner, it’s just one of those things, like getting hit by lightning. Hardly anyone spends time worrying about lightning.
When the deed is done by a terrorist, there’s a malevolence to it that elevates it from scary to terrifying. Never mind that your odds of being killed by a terrorist are far lower than the odds of dying in your bathtub. Millions of people would stand all day in the bathtub with a plugged-in radio perched on the edge rather than face the possibility of terrorism, and the government will dedicate vast resources and strip you of civil liberties to protect you from terrorists while happily letting you die in your bathroom.
Calling killers “terrorists” isn’t like correctly calling an old imp “Rumpelstiltskin.” It gives us no power over them. It only gives them power, pushing us to respond to them on their terms. Paddock was nobody, and now he’s a dead nobody who did nothing but bring pain and grief into the world. Anyone can do that.
Let killers be killers, not terrorists. Don’t make Paddock more than he was, nor any killer who happens to have an ideology.