The U.S. is reeling from yet another act of domestic terrorism—this one, worse than the one before it, as they all tend to be lately. Stephen Paddock, 64, opened fire on a crowd of thousands at a Las Vegas country music festival Sunday night, killing at least 59 and injuring more than 500 others. Paddock, who took his own life after the massacre, was white.
While profiling the gunman, Las Vegas police referred to Paddock with a seemingly innocuous description: "Right now, we believe it's a sole actor, a lone-wolf type actor," Sheriff Joseph Lombardo said in a news conference Monday. Soon after, the phrase "lone wolf" skyrocketed to the top of Twitter's trending topics, with many expressing their discomfort with the police's, and subsequently the media's, use of the phrase.
The lone wolf. The local shooter. The gunman. Any and everything, but terrorist. Wonder why.— Ava DuVernay (@ava) October 2, 2017
To speed this up a bit:— Travon Free (@Travon) October 2, 2017
Thoughts and prayers
No gun restrictions
arm more people
Now back to tax reform#LasVegas
I implore all members of the media to refuse to use this racially coded "lone wolf" language. It happened hours ago. They mean white. https://t.co/8U1Ij2lvIS— Shaun King (@ShaunKing) October 2, 2017
Tired of hearing “lone wolf” when they mean terrorist who happens to be white.— Michael Arceneaux (@youngsinick) October 2, 2017
64-year-old white guy shooter already being described a “lone wolf”— Nisha Chittal (@NishaChittal) October 2, 2017
Because killing 50+ people doesn’t meet the definition of “terrorism”?
50 dead. Over 400 in the hospital. And we continue to call this a LONE WOLF? Call it TERRORISM because that's what it is.— Emmy Rossum (@emmyrossum) October 2, 2017
Will McPhail, artist for the New Yorker, visually illustrated the exact difference between a suspect being identified as a "lone wolf" versus a "terrorist":
And the irony isn't lost on anyone, especially not people of color who are used to certain narratives being painted in the media:
news: someone did a violent thing— Tracy Clayton (@brokeymcpoverty) October 2, 2017
me: Lord I hope they weren't black
news: shooter was a lone wolf
me: oh so they were white
*White guy murders 50 and injures 200+*— Mouadh (@mouadhayachi) October 2, 2017
Media: “local gunman... lone wolf... father of 3..”
Erin Kearn, assistant professor of criminology & criminal justice at University of Alabama, has researched the ways terrorism suspects are covered in media. "We're looking at not just how media is covering terrorism, but the effect it has on the public, on politicians, and trying to triangulate these interactions between media and public perception," Kearn said when we spoke on the phone. She then gave me an overview of the study's findings, which analyzed coverage of terrorist attacks inside the U.S. from 2006 to 2015.
"We found that people are systematically more likely to say an attack is terrorism when the perpetrator is Muslim, when there are multiple perpetrators, when government buildings are attacked, or when bombs are used," Kearn said. "That motivated us to look at how media represents terrorism. What we noticed was there would be very clear quantitative differences, and some attacks were receiving more coverage than others. We wondered why that might be."
What Kearn and her colleagues found on a granular level, was astounding. "Attacks by Muslim perpetrators received on average 357 percent more media coverage than other attacks. ... The perpetrator being Muslim showed a significant increase in the amount of coverage that the attack received."
In contrast, victims of color are often given the "no angel" treatment from the moment their deaths or instances of mistreatment go viral. Earlier this year, Paste Magazine called attention to the unsavory picture being drawn of the Asian United Airlines passenger who was violently removed from a plane. This paragraph within the article perfectly outlines the way victims of color are regularly portrayed:
Sure, Michael Brown was shot in cold blood and his body was left out in the open for hours—but (look over here!), somebody said he’s no angel! Philando Castile, a school cafeteria worker who memorized all the allergies of his 500 students, was previously stopped by the police multiple times, he must have done something to deserve being shot. Twelve-year-old Tamir Rice had a gun. Well, a toy gun, but a gun! No angel! Trayvon Martin looked scary, therefore George Zimmerman needed to shoot him. Eric Garner may have been selling “loosie” cigarettes and therefore needed to be choked to death. No angel!
This is the kind of language that influences a nation. To find out more about how phrases like "lone wolf" and "no angel" take form and take over discussions about victims and suspects, I reached out to Amelia Tseng, lead researcher at American University, research associate for the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, and adjunct lecturer of linguistics and Spanish at Georgetown University. During our conversation, Tseng broke down the elements that combine to create this phenomenon.
On who gets labeled a "lone wolf"
"'Lone wolf' almost always seems to come up in context of white male perpetrators of violent crimes, whereas the language to describe subjects of color tends to be quite different," Tseng said. "It doesn't matter if it's 'lone wolf' or something else: if that's the special term that only that one group of suspects gets, then there is something up."
While "lone wolf" exclusively applies to white men, the term "thug" is used specifically for black men in media. Not only has it been used for black suspects, but also just about every publicized victim of police brutality or other injustice. One example is Jordan Edwards, the 15-year-old black boy who was shot in cold blood while attempting to leave a Texas house party in April of this year. Based on coverage of past incidents, which tended to smear victims instead of eulogizing them, a family friend of Edwards came forth to specifically say, "He was not a thug. This shouldn’t happen to him." (That comment opens a whole other can of worms regarding who it "should happen" to, but that's a story for another day.)
On how problematic phrases like "no angel" become the norm
To borrow a phrase from Tseng: "communication is cumulative." In other words, everything that we say, do and hear circulates via the media and amplifies over time, ultimately causing certain presumptions and stereotypes to stick in the collective American psyche.
"The danger once they take on a life of their own is they become naturalized," Tseng said. "We don't interrogate the terms anymore. We just sort of use those labels as a shortcut, and don't think about it too much."
According to Tseng, the media has a great deal of influence on those labels making it into society. "Teachers listen to the news. Police officers listen to the news. Witnesses and juries listen to the news."
So, when the New York Times writes something like "Michael Brown, 18, due to be buried on Monday, was no angel, with public records and interviews with friends and family revealing both problems and promise in his young life," it leaves a lasting impact on those who trust the publication to be balanced and fair.
On the demonization of black men in media
Tseng explained the connection between perpetuated stereotypes in media and the ugly racial history African Americans are already dealing with in this country. "'He was no angel,' she began, pinpointing one of the most common phrases. "Regardless of the actual situation—maybe he had done something when he was 13 years old, he got suspended from school—all these things tie into those stereotypes about black men as more dangerous than everybody else. We see that everywhere."
Callous catchphrases like "super predator," spread by almost-president Hillary Clinton (who was our best bet), and images of black men constantly being overpowered by heavy police forces, sometimes to the point of death, further pushes the idea of the African American male being dangerous or prone to violence. Tseng said this assumption dates back to slavery.
"Those stereotypes are with us now and tie very obviously into stereotypes that were current in the country for hundreds of years to justify the existing social order, and segregation and slavery. But we still see the echo now from the language that's going on."
On the idea of white males as "normal"
"There is still this idea that the normal person here is white male, cisgender, straight guy," Tseng told me. "So, these cultural narratives that we have about people and how they act and where they belong and what they should do and how they should be treated that help us make sense of the world and anomalous actions, they kick in differently for those guys because those guys are 'normal.'"
If normal means "greatest threat to national security," then that makes sense. In 2009, the Department of Homeland Security released a report that identified "white supremacists, radical anti-abortionists and a few disgruntled veterans" as the greatest threats to the U.S. Vox also notes that more Americans were killed by homegrown right-wing extremists than by Islamist terrorists between 2001 and 2015.
On why Muslims and people of Arab and Middle Eastern descent are pegged as terrorists
When the president signed an executive order banning people from numerous Muslim-majority countries from entering the U.S., he claimed it was to protect Americans from "radical Islamic terrorists."
"We don’t want 'em here," Trump told reporters at the Pentagon, feeding the beast that is Islamophobia.
"It kicks in that sort of violent criminal package," Tseng said of the rhetoric attached to this group, "and the discourse takes on a life of its own because the stereotypical attributes are things that make sense to people who have been socialized into understanding that narrative as motivations for the crime."
For example, the Boston Marathon bombers identified as Muslim, and were almost immediately pegged as terrorists. Not only that, the integrity of the Muslim community it its entirety was brought into question. While on "Fox & Friends" in April this year, guest co-host Jon Scott alleged that the Showtime program Homeland had a "political agenda" by challenging the widely believed idea that Muslim violence is driven by faith and foreign beliefs. "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."
The repeated use of stereotypically offensive language like this—especially for a nation of divided individuals who don’t need more reasons to confine themselves to their bubbles of prejudice—is exactly how we ended up here, today, with a terrorist on our hands who will likely never be defined as such. From in-depth research like Erin Kearn’s, which spells out these problematic patterns to a tee, to the evidence that lives within history and our language itself, the receipts are plentiful. It’s time we stop ignoring them.