In what police call the deadliest attack in modern American history, 64-year-old Stephen Paddock opened fire on concertgoers at a country music festival in Las Vegas on Sunday.
Despite the scale of the attack and Paddock’s being armed with more than 10 rifles, Las Vegas Sheriff Joe Lombardo immediately dismissed any ties to terrorism, classifying Paddock, a white male from a rural town 80 miles from Las Vegas, as a “local individual” and a “lone wolf.”
We have yet to determine whether Paddock was motivated by anyone or anything, so many are tiptoeing around terms such as “terrorist.” But if Paddock were Muslim, his status as a local individual would be entirely irrelevant, and the motive of “Islamic terrorism” or “jihad” would likely be immediately assumed, even without any evidence.
The Las Vegas shooting raises several questions linked to race and religion and how they figure into our imagining and policing of terrorism. President Trump has ushered in the third phase of the war on terror, and his brazen “clash of civilization” rhetoric around U.S. anti-terrorism policy and programming has fixated on Muslims.
Trump continues to carry forward counter-radicalization policing — the signature anti-terrorism program installed by former president Barack Obama — which seeks to identify and arrest “homegrown” Muslim radicals. Like Paddock, Dylann Roof, who killed nine churchgoers in Charleston, S.C., in 2015, was described as a “lone wolf.”
But why is one person “homegrown” while someone else is a “lone” or “local wolf”? An extensive list of exemptions has become available to white culprits of mass violence, most notably “lone wolf” or “insane,” and the Las Vegas shooting adds the status of being “a local individual” to the roster.
Certainly, many of the Muslim Americans pursued as prospective radicals in Minneapolis, Boston, Los Angeles or Washington, D.C. — cities where counter-radicalization programs are robustly enforced — are tied to specific communities. They, too, are local.
However, being brown, black and Muslim marks them as being perpetually foreign before the eyes of the state and local law enforcement tasked with the responsibility to pursue and prosecute homegrown Muslim radicals. While Muslim identity is often attached to possible collective action and foreignness, whiteness seems inextricably tied to the presumption of individuality and indigenousness.
In an April segment of “Fox & Friends,” guest co-host Jon Scott alleged that Showtime’s “Homeland” had a “political agenda” by challenging the trope that Muslim violence is driven by a violence inherent to the faith and tied to foreign terrorist actors. “Do we remember who the bombers of the Boston Marathon were?” Scott asked. “I mean, just an aside to the Muslim community, if you don’t want to be portrayed in a negative light, maybe don’t burn people alive and set off bombs and things like that.” Pete Hegseth added: “Yeah, and point out the radicalism, and say that’s not me.”
Time and again, following a terrorist attack involving a (nominal or bona-fide) Muslim individual, Muslim Americans are expected to disavow and condemn the attack. The burden of collateral and collective guilt has become a central component of the modern Muslim American experience, which they are saddled with as a consequence of private and popular Islamophobia.
However, no one expects white men to apologize on behalf of all other white men, even though 63 percent of mass shootings since 1982 have been committed by their demographic. While Muslim identity is often tied to terrorism suspicion, whiteness swiftly disconnects individuals like Paddock from other white Americans from any responsibility to disavow, condemn or apologize on behalf of “one of their own.”
Double standards and a conflation of terrorism with one group are not only a mirror of popular stereotypes, but also a reflection of core baselines in our legal system. They are messages that command us, as a society, to instantly seek vengeance and justice in the name of our country when the culprits of terrorism are Muslims, but retreat from any political analysis or finger-pointing when the culprits are white.
While we focus on Muslim boogeymen both near and far, we neglect hateful, armed white terrorists right here at home.
Clarification: An earlier version of this story mentioned a Fox News segment which Jon Scott co-hosted. To clarify, he was the guest co-host that day.
Khaled A. Beydoun is an associate professor of law at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law and author of “American Islamophobia: Understanding the Roots and Rise of Fear” (forthcoming).