What do you call the premeditated murder of 59 people by a heavily armed civilian? News media appear to have settled on the phrase ‘mass shooting’, avoiding the more incendiary term ‘terrorism’ because, we are told, there is no obvious motive behind the shooter’s actions. Masha Gessen in the New Yorker urges us not to describe this as an act of terror because, so far, ‘no evidence has emerged that the Las Vegas shooter was motivated by political beliefs.’ Scott Shane in the New York Times agreed that the ‘mass killing of innocents, even on the scale of Las Vegas, does not automatically meet the generally accepted definition of terrorism, which requires a political, ideological or religious motive.’
On the BBC’s Today programme yesterday, some nine hours after the horror of the Manchester bombing, Nick Robinson was speaking to Chris Phillips, a counter-terrorism expert. ‘Terrorists don’t care who they kill,’ Phillips said. ‘It’s the number of bodybags that determines success.’ ‘And the publicity,’ Robinson interjected. ‘And the publicity,’ Phillips agreed. The Today programme then dutifully devoted its entire three hours of programming to coverage of the bombing (apart from a few minutes on weather and sport). This was before the perpetrator had been identified and before the security services had been able to assess whether or not the attack was an isolated incident. Coverage mostly consisted of commentators speculating on motives, along with a series of harrowing eyewitness accounts that helped to amplify the main objectives of terrorism: to create fear and to sow division.