Blog post

More War on Terror?: The Politics of Punishment and the Shooting in Las Vegas

Outbreaks of mass violence must be understood as social problems in need of political solutions rather than criminal justice problems in need of more punishment.

Alex S. Vitale 3 October 2017

Las Vegas police participate in a 2012 "Multi Assault Counter Terrorism Action Capabilities" training at Nellis Air Force Base.

More carnage at the hands of men with guns. Nevada, like much of the country, lacks meaningful restrictions on access to assault rifles and the ammunition that feeds them. We can only hope that an event like this will undermine the logic of expanding gun ownership and “open carry” perpetuated by the gun industry and its prime lobbyist, the NRA, and lead to a more rational interpretation of the Second Amendment.

More likely, however, is an intensification of the politics of fear and an expansion of the War on Terror, driven in part by misguided but well-meaning calls to define this latest mass shooting as a domestic terror incident. It is understandable that when people see the horrible acts of non-white people labeled as terrorism, they want similar acts by whites to be labeled the same way, in the hope that by doing so the power of the NRA and the radical right will be undermined by equating gun violence with whiteness.

For now, we know nothing about the killer’s motives. Was there some sort of warped political motivation behind this or was this a case of profound, but all too common, untreated mental illness? One of the first such mass sniper shootings was carried out in 1966 at the University of Texas. The shooter had a massive brain tumor and had been turned away from medical treatment before killing 14 people from the university clock tower.

Demanding that the Las Vegas shooting be treated as terrorism runs the real risk of further expanding the power of the FBI, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and President Trump to engage in more of the unjust and counterproductive practices associated with prosecuting the War on Terror in the US. The FBI routinely relies on scams that border on entrapment to lure young and vulnerable people into “plots” that have been entirely created and facilitated by the FBI. The more outlandish the plot they cook up, the more headlines they get, despite the total inability of the person arrested to conceptualize, much less carry out such an attack.

Following 9/11, the US created a national network of “Fusion Centers” designed to gather intelligence and fight terrorism. When it quickly became clear that there was no such work for them to do in the vast majority of jurisdictions, they quickly shifted over to an “all hazzards/all crimes” posture that has led to an expansion of surveillance of non-violent political groups.

An expansion of the War on Terror would likely further accelerate the militarization of policing as well. Trump recently signaled his support for this when he dialed back the modest restrictions President Obama had placed on the transfer of military hardware to local police forces. Broadening the mandate of this “war” will encourage even more military hardware on our streets, and possibly more importantly, an expansion of the “warrior” mindset among police, who already view much of the public they police as “enemies.”

While calls for equality before the law are much needed, we too often equate that with expanding the use of punishment. Do we really want to increase the arrests of whites for drug violations to make the War on Drugs more racially just? Shouldn’t we instead question the basic idea of using police, courts, and prisons to manage an urgent public health issue? We need to break the habit of equating justice with punishment and look instead to develop prevention mechanisms that bring us more safety.

We should support rational gun control legislation and a rethinking of the Second Amendment that would allow us to reign in the availability of assault weapons. Unfortunately, such a “supply side” approach is unlikely to be very successful. There remains strong political support for easy access to guns of all kinds. Even robust restrictions on handguns would be slow to make much a difference, because there are currently more guns than people in the US.

We need to also consider a broad range of demand side solutions. Keep in mind that one of the greatest drivers of gun sales and the cynical politics of gun deregulation is racial fear and animus. Whenever there are increased calls for racial justice, such as the emergence of Black Lives Matter, gun sales increase. This is a political problem that gets to the heart of racism in American society. It is this reality that must be addressed head on if we hope to reduce the stockpiling of guns.

Closely related to this is a deep distrust of the state and any kind of broadly collective approaches to the common good. Large swaths of the population feel deeply alienated from a state that they see as directly producing economic displacement in their lives while providing what they see as hand outs and special treatment for “others” such as immigrants and people of color. This kind of loss of political faith is driving militia movements, Oath Keepers, the open carry movement, and other to turn to weapons as a mythical defense against an imperial state.

Many of the most horrible mass shootings have been perpetrated by people with severe mental illnesses. Many of these people were known to health if not law enforcement authorities, but little was done to really address their mental health needs. In some cases they were given some pills and sent on their way, in others they were merely passed on from campus officials to community ones, with no real plan or continuum of care.

Outbreaks of mass violence must be understood as social problems in need of political solutions rather than criminal justice problems in need of more punishment. Stephan Paddock is dead and many such incidents end in suicide. To talk of more punishment in these cases is beyond ridiculous. It perpetuates a politics of revenge that is at the heart of mass incarceration and the expanded power of the police. We need another way forward.

Alex S. Vitale is professor of sociology at Brooklyn College and author of The End of Policing from Verso Press.

[book-strip index="1" style="display"]
The End of Policing
The massive uprising following the police killing of George Floyd in the summer of 2020--by some estimates the largest protests in US history--thrust the argument to defund the police to the forefr...
Policing the Planet

Policing the Planet

Combining firsthand accounts from activists with the research of scholars and reflections from artists, Policing the Planet traces the global spread of the broken-windows policing strategy, first e...
This book armed activists on the streets—as well as the many who have become concerned about police abuse—with a critical analysis and ultimately a redefinition of the very idea of policing. The b...
Paperback (2018)
War on Terror, Inc.
War has always made people rich: from high-tech weaponry to construction and catering, war is a commercial bonanza. But as Solomon Hughes shows in this wide-ranging chronicle, the many incarnations...
Irregular Army
Since the launch of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars—now the longest wars in American history—the US military has struggled to recruit troops. It has responded, as Matt Kennard’s explosive investigati...
Age of Folly
In twenty-five years of imperial adventure, America has laid waste to its principles of democracy. The self-glorifying march of folly steps off at the end of the Cold War, in an era when delusions ...
If They Come in the Morning
The trial of Angela Davis is remembered as one of America's most historic political trials, and no one can tell the story better than Davis herself. Opening with a letter from James Baldwin to Ange...
Lockdown America
Why is criminal justice so central to American politics? Lockdown America not only documents the horrors and absurdities of militarized policing, prisons, a fortified border, and the federalization...

Filed under: policing, war-on-terror