The Color of Terrorism

By Rasheed Stewart
Associate Editor, Volume 23


Mourners create a memorial in Las Vegas to remember those lost after the 2017 shooting.

On October 1, 2017, a 64-year-old white American male opened fire on thousands of concertgoers in Las Vegas, Nevada.[1]  Over 58 innocent people were murdered and 546 more were injured, instantly making it the deadliest shooting in modern American history.[2]  Under Nevada law, terrorism is defined as, “any act that involves the use or attempted use of sabotage, coercion or violence which is intended to cause great bodily harm or death to the general population.”[3]  Seemingly, this senseless act of tragic violence consisted of the exact elements Nevada lawmakers intended to criminalize when they created the statute.  Undoubtedly, the facts of the Vegas mass shooting should constitute terrorism under the definition of the Nevada statute; however, national media outlets have been quick to opine their own reasoning for why the single deadliest mass shooting in U.S. modern history should not be considered ‘terrorism.’[4]

The myriad of reasons they suggest include the contrariness of the Vegas shooting with Oxford’s definition of ‘terrorism,’ of which requires a political aim.[5]  Other explanations focus on the FBI’s definition requiring a political objective.[6] Superficially, the media continues to disseminate implicitly biased conclusions to the general population. In turn, these conclusions excuse significantly violent acts caused by white American males, not Islamic State fighters, and condone them as mass shootings, not terrorism. Why? Doubtless, the answer will not appear in the definition of terrorism; nonetheless, there is an unwritten, implicit understanding that the color of ‘terrorism’ is, and always will be, non-white.

To further this conclusion, one must look at other examples of similar incidents, and analyze if this claim holds true. On November 5, 2017, a 26-year-old white American male armed with an assault rifle, shot and killed 26 community members, including a child as young as 18 months while they worshipped inside a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas.[7]  No motive had been revealed as the investigation proceeded; however, President Trump, like the various U.S. media outlets that effectively continue to control the narrative, tweeted his reasoning for why this occurred by stating the incident was a, “mental health problem of the highest degree,” and not a “guns situation.” [8]  Even after a man intentionally walked into a house of worship, and committed the deadliest mass shooting in Texas history,[9] there was not a single utterance of the word ‘terrorism’ or even an act of ‘terror’ that could be found.  Of course, President Trump has conceivably memorized the FBI definition for terrorism and refrained from calling the murderer a terrorist because there was no ‘political aim’ present, right? Wrong.

In explicit contrast, the word ‘terrorism’ is propagated throughout headlines, talk shows, and even tweets when the perpetrator is a person of color.  For example, on July 7, 2016 a black American male shot and killed 5 police officers, injuring 11 others in Dallas, Texas.[10]  Law enforcement officials stated that the killer’s motive was that he “wanted to kill officers, and white people…and he expressed anger for Black Lives Matter.”[11] Despite the killer’s own explicit reasoning for killing innocent officers, none having to do with so-called Islamic State extremism, media outlets expeditiously label this “an act of domestic terrorism.”[12]  Some journalists even titled opinions saying “2016 Could Be The Deadliest Year For Terror Attacks Targeting Police Since 1973” (emphasis added).[13] By not calling white American males who kill mass amounts of innocent people terrorists, the public’s perception continues to be misaligned in believing the color of terrorism to be black and brown.  Often, public perception is entirely unaware of the subconscious implicit biases that are routinely disseminated through media content. Consequently, these implicit biases perpetuate racism; thus, reaffirming systemic oppressive institutions as societal norms.

To make matters worse, even when there is direct evidence that supports the fact that white males are responsible for the deadliest mass shootings in this country,[14] the color of terrorism is still black and brown. Just think, if U.S. citizens started to equate the War on Terrorism with your average twenty to fifty-year-old white man, living in rural towns across the fifty states, what would happen next?  Would Congress implement new legislation within thirty days to curb this threat to American democracy, as they did in passing the PATRIOT Act?[15]  Or, maybe law enforcement would use sense enhancing technology to surveil every step that description fitting white males took, akin to methods exhibited by the NYPD after 9/11?[16]  Most likely, none of this would happen because white males are in positions of power in virtually every economic and political institution in the U.S.; therefore, they can define the narrative of terrorism through careful description of deeply polarizing and horrifying acts of violence, like those that have plagued this country since the 20th century.

Admittedly, one can debate if the definition of ‘terrorism’ should be the ultimate factor in determining the categorization of attacks as terrorism or simply mass murder. What cannot be debated is the fact that the race of the perpetrator in these tragic incidents deeply influences this society’s perception of whether an “act of terrorism” has been committed or not.  Miraculously, our so-called ‘colorblind’[17] post racial society[18] appears to still see the color of terrorism when it sees fit.

[1] Mark Follman, Gavin Aronsen & Deanna Pan, US Mass Shootings, 1982-2017: Data From Mother Jones’ Investigation, Mother Jones (November 15, 2017),

[2] Id.

[3] Jason Le Miere, Why Isn’t Las Vegas Shooting Being Called ‘Terrorism’ and Shooter Stephen Paddock a ‘Terrorist’?, Newsweek (October 2, 2017),

[4] Masha Gessen, Why We Should Resist Calling the Las Vegas Shooting “Terrorism”, The New Yorker (October 3, 2017), See also, Las Vegas shooting: Why it’s too soon to call the attack terrorism,CBS News, (October 2, 2017),

[5] The Oxford Dictionary, (November 28, 2017),

[6] Gessen, supra note 4.

[7] Texas church shooting in Sutherland Springs: Latest on investigation, CBS News, (November 7, 2017),

[8] Id.

[9] Cassandra Pollock, The Brief: The deadliest mass shooting in Texas history, The Texas Tribune, (November 6, 2017),

[10] Froma Harrop, Attack on Dallas police was terrorism, The Denver Post, (July 12, 2016),

[11] Peter Bergen & David Sterman, Dallas: An act of domestic terrorism, CNN, (July 8, 2016),

[12] Id.

[13] Carl Bialik, 2016 Could Be The Deadliest Year For Terror Attacks Targeting Police Since 1973, FiveThirtyEight, (July 18, 2016),

[14] John Kruzel, Are white males responsible for more mass shootings than any other group?, Politifact, (October 6, 2017),

[15] Paul Blumenthal, Congress Had No Time to Read the USA PATRIOT Act, Sunlight Foundation, (March 2, 2009),

[16] ACLU, (November 28, 2017),

[17] Adam Serwer, Sonia Sotomayor: Court’s right wing ‘out of touch with reality’, MSNBC, (April 23, 2014),

[18] Alice Speri, Half of America Thinks We Live in a Post-Racial Society — The Other Half, Not So Much, VICE,