The morning after the worst mass shooting in U.S. history, which took place at a Monday night concert in Last Vegas, President Donald Trump emerged to make a statement about the massacre. “It was an act of pure evil,” he said, mentioning God seven times in his brief comments. He also referenced the Scriptures, made mention of prayer, faith and the dichotomy between darkness and light.
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The one word he did not mention is terror. And that’s no great surprise, because unless any evidence surfaces in the hours and days to come that the shooter, Stephen Paddock, had converted to Islam – none has emerged, other than the Islamic State making that claim on its Amaq News website – there’s no reason for Trump to designate it as a terror attack. In Trump’s book, if you commit an act of mass violence and you’re Muslim, you’re automatically a terrorist. In fact, that makes you a purveyor of “radical Islamic terror,” pronounced staccato as a shibboleth that, should you refuse to state it in its entirety, proves you are a radical leftist who supports terrorism. If you commit a mass shooting and you’re white and Christian, you’re simply a man who committed an act of evil.
>> FULL TEXT: Trump's remarks following Las Vegas shooting
It might be that you’re mentally ill. But even if evidence of Paddock’s psychological health ultimately points in that direction, it will still smack of double-standards: An American Christian’s act of violence can be blamed on his mental health, but if a Muslim shows signs of mental illness – such as in the case of Omar Mateen in the Orlando shooting last year – that hardly matters alongside the label of “radical Islamic terror.”
The textbook definition of terrorism involves the use of violence especially (but not exclusively) against civilians, especially in pursuit of political aims. This last bit is amorphous. We usually label as terrorism those horrific acts that have some political motive – and whether Paddock had one is yet unknown. That said, there have been many acts of terrorism that were designated as such despite the fact that it would be a stretch to call the perpetrators’ ideology political. When members of Aum Shinrikyo attacked the Tokyo subways with sarin gas in 1995, killing 12 and injuring 50, it was designated as an act of domestic terrorism despite the fact that the bizarre cult’s hope to bring about an apocalypse could hardly be classified as a political statement.
If it does emerge that Paddock showed signed of mental illness, it would make great sense if it led to some soul-searching in America about access to guns. Unfortunately, though, Trump is even more dedicated to representing the agenda of the National Rifle Association than was his political hero, Ronald Reagan. Reagan, who survived an assassination attempt in 1981, eventually pulled away from his staunch support of the NRA and backed the passage of the Brady Law, which established federal background checks of gun buyers with criminal records and histories of mental illness. But states still make their own rules. Nevada, for example, has some of the most relaxed gun laws in the nation. No state permit is required to purchase or possess a rifle, shotgun or handgun. Nevada law allows for openly carrying a firearm, and it is “lawful to possess, purchase or sell a machine gun or silencer” as long as its compliance with all federal laws and regulations, according to the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action.
Trump has shown that he is so keen to remain on the NRA’s good side that back in February, after little more than a month in office, he signed a bill into law undoing new Obama-era regulations intended to make it harder for people with mental illnesses to buy guns. Obama’s regulations would have added the names of people deemed unfit to run their own financial affairs or receiving Social Security support for mental illness to the national background check database. The NRA opposed this critical limitation on gun purchases, taking a far greater interest in the gun rights of all Americans – regardless of mental illness, history of violent behavior or spousal abuse – than their rights to enjoy a concert or a night at a club without being gunned down.
In fact, that may be the real source of terror in America: Enabling unfathomable acts of violence for a political cause.
The problem with Trump blaming evil is that alongside the other religious language he evoked in his comments, evil is a kind of constant in the fundamentalist’s worldview. It’s out there and always will be, until the Second Coming or some other divine intervention puts an end to it. You can struggle against evil, but you won’t root it out entirely, so why infringe on our holy Second Amendment in the process?
So evil it is and terror it isn’t. Terror demands a political response, while evil will suffice with a more spiritual one. It is for this reason that #thoughtsandprayers is trending wildly on Twitter. We have had enough of those; we need action more than consolation. But given Trump’s base and his NRA backing, I don’t think we can expect more than his warmest condolences.