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Don't call Stephen Paddock a terrorist

Sometimes we are told by the media's great and good to calm down about terrorism. There are so few attacks that it's not rational to be scared - the real threat is our furniture. Sometimes, though, it seems they think we're not nearly alarmed enough. They think that if we counted properly we'd recognise over five hundred more terrorist attacks in the United States since last June.

Of course this isn't what they say. What they say is that gunning down dozens of people at a music festival is terrorism, and we should call it by its name. When police declined to describe Stephen Paddock's murder of 58 people from a hotel balcony as an act of terrorism, there was outrage. The point is that large parts of the media and law enforcement establishments reserve the term 'terrorism' for attacks committed by people who are Muslim. They're not wrong to point this out. The public discourse around terrorism is defined almost completely by its Islamophobic presumptions, and they should be challenged at every opportunity.

But the answer is not to try for a neutral, unbigoted understanding of what terrorism is. For all their good intentions, following these calls - similar arguments were made when a left-wing activist shot a Republican congressman at baseball practice - would help create an environment where people hear more and worry more about terrorism. That's not something anybody who wants to push back against the prejudices of our approach to counterterrorism should want. The function of the 'terrorism' label is to make societal debate murky, frenzied and frightening. It's the rhetorical cloak for ongoing moves towards heavier-handed policing and more intrusive surveillance.

Roy Jenkins described one of the UK's first pieces of anti-terror legislation, in 1974, as "draconian" and "unprecedented". He was the bill's main advocate. It allowed police to arrest someone suspected of terrorism and hold them without charge for 48 hours. This power had to be renewed by the Parliament every year. In 2000 the detention power was made permanent. In 2003 the period was extended to fourteen days. In 2006, a victory for civil liberties meant the next extension was only to twenty-eight days, not the ninety the police wanted. Arguing for anything less, after the 2005 London Underground bombings, was apparently impossible. Last year the government finally passed its controversial "snoopers' charter", expanding the surveillance powers of police and intelligence agencies. Home Secretary Amber Rudd is on an ongoing, ill-informed crusade against encryption.

These laws only ever go in one direction. The United States' infamous Patriot Act - written in just a month after September 11 and passed by Congress in less than three days - initially scheduled many of its important provisions to expire after four years. They did not. Extensions were passed repeatedly, until June 2015 when several sections did expire because of Congress' bad time management. They were reinstated the next day. In 2004, Australia's attorney-general Phillip Ruddock used the Madrid bombings of a few months earlier to justify a sweeping review and 'update' of the country's terrorism legislation, to make it fit for countering modern terrorist methods. But a year later he was back for more. The Parliament and state governments baulked at rushing through the change, but it still took less than two months for them to acquiesce. After the London attacks, how could they say no? Anyone who thinks the problem with our public debate about policing and surveillance is that we're too sparing with the use of the word 'terrorism' is not thinking straight.

Perhaps if some white Christian people get their visas cancelled or end up in preventive detention, everyone will come to realise what overreach they've supported. But it's either a parody of equality or an incredibly naive kind of accelerationism to think this is the way to fight back against the war on terror. Terrorism is a word with a function, not a meaning. Margaret Thatcher declared she would not negotiate with terrorists, and the Troubles rolled on. The US refused to even consider settling 240 Tamil refugees because of their links to a rebel group that ceased to exist eight years ago and never operated outside Sri Lanka and India. Insinuations of connections to terrorism have been brandished to defend ever-harsher treatment of refugees. People talk about terrorism for a reason: to make the nonsensical and cruel seem reasonable and necessary. 

And what about gun control? The history of anti-terror legislation and policy is not a story of sensible responses that get to the core of a threat. It's a story of handing the reins of public debate to police and warmongers who take the opportunity to do things they'd always wanted to. Insistently waving around the Nevada criminal code and proclaiming that Stephen Paddock was a terrorist will not get stricter gun laws imposed. At best it'll do nothing but make people more scared. At worst it'll help create a climate for more of the same.

Whether to call someone a terrorist is not a decision we should be making through scrupulous consultation with a dictionary. It's about whether we want to participate in keeping terrorism a driving concept in our political debate. The UK has passed fifteen anti-terror laws since 2000. Define into existence more terrorists, and that steady drip won't stop.