What do we gain from calling the Vegas shooting a terrorist act?

I had a good comment from one of my students about framing mental illness in the aftermath of mass violence, and I did a bad job in class of responding to it. (I sucked in class in general this week.) Her point: people who have mental illnesses are much more likely to be victims rather than perpetrators of violence. That gets drowned out in the narrative around shooters: he snapped, he was mentally ill, he was crazy. I pointed out that Republicans at least pretend to care about mental illness in the aftermath of mass shootings as a way to deflect responsibility doing anything rational on gun policy, and I always hope we might get some gains there even if it’s from the wrong reasoning. She persisted on her point; she was right and I wrong. One of the problems with age, I suspect, is too much willingness to gain policy ground even on specious assumptions. Ends-means stuff.

In that vein, I’ve been following the discussions around the Vegas shooter, and the inevitable critiques that arise over the way white and male privilege creates cover for white male violence: he was a “lone wolf” instead of a terrorist. The resistance to this narrative makes sense to me: the double standards of privilege don’t deserve to stand, and every group has its violent-minded discontents with grievances against the world who, unfortunately, can hurt many people. Denying that part of whiteness, let alone the systemic violence of white supremacist institutions, perpetuates dangerous illusions about who is violent and who isn’t.

So equality in term usage makes sense to me, but there are to me some useful conceptual distinctions between terrorism and mass shootings. In terms of damage done, I doubt it really matters much about whether the shooter is an “individual malcontent” or part of an organized group, non-state-sponosered with an articulated political goal, but I think it does matter in terms of policy (as opposed to state-sponsored acts of violence.) I remember reading a very thoughtful piece from a woman of color (and I can’t freaking find it now, damn it) challenging the terrorist label with Dylan Roof and questioning the demands that he be labeled a terrorist: given how unreflective Americans are when that label comes out, why would we want to promulgate it in any context?

I don’t know. I don’t buy that somebody like the Vegas shooter “isn’t political” even if he didn’t issue some creepy manifesto. Mass shootings are attacks on the body politic. And just because he’s not with some organization that has a name and a manifesto, he is supported by an encompassing ecology of violence for white men in the US.

The reason I am thinking about this problem and how badly I handled my student’s point is that I think they are outgrowths of the same problems with the individualistic narratives that Americans indulge in. Whatever the problem, whether it’s mental illness or white violence, whatever attempt we might make to resource and address the problem, it’s always possible for people to discount systematic interventions by laying blame on individual moral turpitude. “Evil” says Donald Trump, not “evil” enabled and made infinitely worse with excruciatingly poor gun policies and a culture of male violence so thick you can’t turn away from it.

Again, I dunno. I’d love to hear answers either way.