BROOKE GLADSTONE: And yet, we keep grasping for shorthand, applying numbers to quantify pain and terms to explain the inexplicable, words that, for instance, cast a random act of violence as a tactic in a forever war.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Was the attack in Las Vegas domestic terrorism? It depends on who you ask.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Ariana Grande tweeted, “look at this & call this what it is = terrorism.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: According to the FBI, for something to be called “domestic terrorism” the perpetrator must be pursuing a political or social objective. According to the Patriot Act, acts of domestic terrorism involve crimes dangerous to human life, primarily in the United States, intended to intimidate or coerce the population or to influence the policy or conduct of the government.
But New Yorker columnist Masha Gessen says there are plenty of other reasons besides the matter of definition why we should beware calling what happened in Las Vegas “terrorism.”
MASHA GESSEN: I think most people don't realize this but in the years since the war on terror began, we've established what amounts to sort of a parallel system of law enforcement against suspected terrorists. And according to the Human Rights Watch in Columbia Law School, a human rights project study, a third of the people who have been convicted on terrorism-related charges in this country were arrested as a result of an FBI sting operation in which the informant engineered the suppose terrorist plot. And the people who are targeted are invariably Muslim, usually brown and often immigrants.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And once they’re treated as terrorists, what happens to them?
MASHA GESSEN: And then what happens is that there are separate sentencing guidelines for terrorism-related crimes. So, to give you an example, if somebody were convicted of, say, obstruction of justice related to a non-terrorism prosecution, that person would get something like six years less than somebody who is convicted of the exact same crime for the exact same actions but related to a terrorism-related prosecution. Almost everyone who is accused of terrorism is held in special isolation cells, and, and this is a very important and painful part for immigrants, correspondence and telephone conversations are allowed only in English because an FBI agent is always listening in and they have to accommodate the FBI agents. So solitary, as such, is a torture practice, but this is like super-solitary.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You argue that what we saw in Las Vegas doesn't fit traditional definitions of terrorism, and there were similar calls to apply the word after the death of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville. Could you make a case against the word in both incidents?
MASHA GESSEN: I don't think either case can be called terrorism because, as far as we know in the Las Vegas shooting, there was no political objective. As for Charlottesville, as far as we know, there was a political objective or at least there was political motivation, but this was not a symbolic victim.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Right.
MASHA GESSEN: This was a direct attack on counter-protesters.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And why is this important?
MASHA GESSEN: Because the word “terrorism” stands for a very destructive force in American politics that has been operative for the last 16 years. We have created a paralegal system. We have created all sorts of extralegal weapons for fighting terrorism. And we have also imbued acts of senseless violence with meaning. What happens to an aspiring thug when he stumbles upon the possibility of allying himself with, say, ISIS, whether or not that connection is real, he goes from being a common criminal to being an enemy combatant. And, you know, I reported on the Tsarnaev trial in Boston, and I literally lost count of the number of times that the assistant district attorney used the words “they attacked us.”
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You’re talking about the two brothers who committed the Boston Marathon bombing in 2014.
MASHA GESSEN: Right. So these two young men committed an absolutely heinous crime. They killed three people, they maimed 264 others, but that crime was not an act of war. And I think that it's doing terrorists a lot of favors to sort of endow them with the power of attacking a great power and sort of accepting the declaration of war.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But weren’t they allied with Chechens engaged in terrorism?
MASHA GESSEN: There is no evidence that it was anything but these two men, filled with rage. And, in this sense, they’re much more similar to the mass shootings that are epidemic in this country than they are to acts committed by ISIS.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So how do you explain demands by activists and commentators to call it “terrorism”?
MASHA GESSEN: There is this hope that if President Trump calls it “terrorism” -- and this is a man who seems to be incapable of compassion and incapable of taking on political responsibility, so maybe if he mouths the word, for a second it will feel like things are real and we’re protected, because as much as terrorists benefit from having their violence imbued with meaning, in a weird way, people who are terrorized by senseless violence also benefit from imbuing it with meaning. Just ascribing it to a terrorist plot makes us feel a little bit less defenseless.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But there's also an attempt to make a broader political point with the word, isn't there? You know, who poses a statistically greater risk to the population in this country?
MASHA GESSEN: Right, so there are no two ways about it. A statistically greater risk to Americans is posed by white men who have easy access to guns and not by Muslims, immigrants, brown people. And so, it seems like getting him to call the Las Vegas shooting “terrorism” is a shortcut to acknowledging that. But I don't think it is.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So, to sum up, the problem with using the word “terrorism” is it's not going to correct the racism with which it's used and the debasement of the political system simply by applying it more broadly, and --
MASHA GESSEN: I mean, basically, it's, it's the proposal to spread injustice more fairly. It doesn't stop being injustice because of it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Masha, thank you very much.
MASHA GESSEN: Thank you.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: Masha Gessen is a columnist for The New Yorker and the author of The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia.
BOB GARFIELD: Coming up, country music has deep ties to American conservatism but it wasn’t always that way.