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  /  Opinion   /  The question that is tearing apart an already broken society: What is a terrorist attack?

The question that is tearing apart an already broken society: What is a terrorist attack?

A woman’s face is lit up by the dozens of candles placed at a vigil held for the victims of the Las Vegas shooting, photo courtesy of The Atlantic.



On October 2nd, the morning after the Las Vegas shooting, social media and news pages had transformed into floodgates for information and harrowing details which had slowly been uncovered, hour by hour, about the attack. As I scrolled through the never-ending wave of details looking for some kind of label of the event, all I saw was “Las Vegas shooting at Mandalay Bay Casino Hotel,” and “Mass shooting…on Las Vegas Strip.” Clearly, the public had already decided for me: the attack in Las Vegas was a mass shooting. First I was confused, as I had assumed that since the attack had induced fear and terror, it had to be a terrorist attack. But when I thought about it, I realized that even though it was deadly mass shooting that caused terror, it was not a terrorist attack.

The Las Vegas shooting sparked a fierce debate throughout America, chipping at an already divided and clashing society. For families and friends mourning the loss of their loved ones in the Las Vegas shooting, it is unclear to them how they should describe the circumstances of their passing. Do they refer to standard definitions, including that given by “The U.S Code of Federal Regulations,” which states a terrorist attack is one perpetrated with “political or social objectives,” or do they claim that by creating terror, any mass shooting is a terrorist attack?


“I agree that there has to be a political, or some kind of statement attached to it,” said Upper School Psychologist Dr. Prieto, when asked what he thinks defines a terrorist attack. “Random acts of horrible violence, for example the Las Vegas shooter, I mean it’s terrifying, it’s terror, but it’s not active terrorism.”


Although no one can give a definitive answer to this overarching question, which has sadly become more frequently asked every day, all we can do is share our opinion, in hope of sparking a new conversation or sense of clarity. The aim of this article is not to diminish what happened to those involved in the attacks, but rather to voice another opinion on this controversial topic.

Our own president often takes on the racist response that many media outlets and people acquire shortly after an attack occurs. After the Las Vegas shooting happened, it took Trump two days to respond, and when he did it was a brief “[we’ll] be talking about gun laws as time goes by.”  Flash forward to the attack in Lower Manhattan, when Trump tweeted within hours: “In NYC, looks like another attack by a very sick and deranged person. Law enforcement is following this closely. NOT IN THE U.S.A.!” …  “We must not allow ISIS to return, or enter, our country after defeating them in the Middle East and elsewhere. Enough!” … “I have just ordered Homeland Security to step up our already Extreme Vetting Program. Being politically correct is fine, but not for this!” Even though 58 people were killed in the Las Vegas shooting, compared to the 8 victims of the Manhattan attack, Trump was much less pugnacious and verbal about his attempts to make changes in America’s future after the Las Vegas shooting occurred. The disparity in his response was fueled by the mass spread assumption of what a terrorist can and cannot be. Many followed in Trump’s footsteps, and assumed that since Stephen Paddock, the perpetrator of the Las Vegas shooting, was a middle-aged, white American man, it eradicated any chances of him being a terrorist. Although he was not a terrorist, this had nothing to do with who he was, but rather why he did it.

After a tragedy like this occurs, we must not let our grief and anger dictate our judgement. It is important to observe the attack objectively, meaning we don’t focus on who the attacker was, but rather what their motive was. If there was no motive other than to kill, then the tragedy was not a terrorist attack. In the case of the Las Vegas shooting, Paddock had no motive that we know of, or at least did not try to gain anything politically or religiously. So, by definition, this was not a terrorist attack.

On October 31st, 30 days after the Las Vegas shooting, a man from Uzbekistan, named Sayfullo Saipov, drove a truck for a mile through runners and cyclists along the Hudson River Park bike path in New York City, killing 8 people, and injuring 11. It was only when he clambered out of the rented truck and shouted “Allahu Akbar,” meaning “God is Great” in Arabic, that the attack was classified as a terrorist attack. Further proof, such as a note found in the truck linking the attack to the terrorist group ISIS, added to the notion that this was a terrorist attack. If Saipov had not shouted “Allahu Akbar,” and had no clear link to ISIS, than the attack would not have been a terrorist attack, since there would have been no religious or political motive.

I wrote this article to shed light on the controversial issue, not to lessen the importance of those who were killed, whether they were killed because of terrorism or not. Although unfortunate, this discussion will inevitably be raised again, and when it does we should refer to what Dr. Prieto stated: “It’s not who does it, it’s what the motive is.” The Las Vegas shooting made me question my own definition of the word ‘terrorism’, which I had previously given a loose definition to. A terrorist attack is one which is committed with political or religious motives, and thanks to having a concrete idea of what a terrorist attack is, I am now able to refer back to this definition if a situation like this ever arises again.

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